November 9, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith
Sometimes it is important to differentiate between an bad policy and incompetent implementation. Universal credit gets a bad rap, but if ever there was an example of good idea being reduced to absurdity when delivered by being designed by people with no idea of the life of those who benefits, universal credit is it.
It is important to to note that seven years ago when David Cameron announced the policy, it won cross-party support. The reason why was simple: for too many adults of working age, it made no sense to work. Why work when you would make less than you could be claiming on benefits? Cameron’s Work and Pensions Secretary was Iain Duncan-Smith. He pushed for a system to be designed that collated six of the working-age benefits into one single (universal) payment, and to make sure that benefits are tapered down when someone gets a job, not cut off abruptly. This would end the ‘benefits trap’ and make work pay. It was a great idea, and still is.
So how did we end up in a situation seven years’ later where the opposition and some Tory MPs are calling for a ‘pause’ in the roll-out of Universal Credit? Put simply, in practice the benefits trap was replaced by a new trap. Recipients have to wait six (sometimes more) weeks for their money, often pushing them into debt just to be able to eat. Furthermore, housing benefit is paid to the claimant’s account instead of the landlord. This money, which should be used to pay rent for private properties, is instead used to service the debt built up by recipients having to wait six weeks for their first payment. Result? No rent for furious landlords (80% of the 1,521 people in Inverness in Scotland on UC are in rental arrears), who are becoming increasingly reluctant to house people on benefits. Just in time for Christmas we are about to have a new homelessness crisis, caused by the botched implementation of a perfectly good.
Duncan-Smith has been painted as the villain in all this. But the former Tory leader made helping people into work his lifelong obsession and this intention is surely laudable. What he didn’t expect was that the computer system administering it would be built with so many glitches. What he didn’t expect was that the staff who administer the scheme would be set loose on claimants whilst still just as baffled by it as the people they were supposed to be helping. What he can’t have predicted was that then Chancellor (now Editor of a London Evening Standard) would take his dislike of Duncan-Smith and tin ear for those most in need to the extreme of imposing that six-week wait for money that means work now doesn’t pay at all for many claimants and debt and the threat of evictions haunt their lives.
The Trussell Trust runs most often food banks in the UK. It says that the rate of increase of referrals it gets is double in areas where Universal Credit is operating than it is where it is not. An example they give is of a single mother with three kids who works in retail on a zero-hours contract, which the UC system struggles to cope with (it also failed to cope with seasonal work). She found herself £400 short last month and phoned the helpline (which has had a 55p a minute charge slapped on it) to find out why, and was told five different explanations until eventually a human error was admitted and she was able to feed her children,
The Spectator’s Mary Wakefield asked the architects to explain the six week wait and was told that ‘it’s vital to treat claimants like grown-ups’. Really? Grown ups in the real world get paid monthly, even weekly. The fee for the helpline was explained as a disincentive to call it. Again, in the real world companies rarely charge customers (the word that current Work and Pensions Minister David Gauke used for claimants) for a helpline.
That is of course if the ‘customers’ are able to make a claim. UC applications must be made online on a form that takes 45 minutes. The neediest people in this country tend not to own laptops, so they pop down to the library to use the internet, and are often restricted to only 30 minutes use. The session ends, and the applicants have to start again. Surely this should be fixed too.
Wakefield points out that UC was supposed to operate on a test-and-learn basis. But that depends on the government having the wit and ability to act quickly if there are problems. This one doesn’t, partly because once Duncan-Smith had gone, the next three Work and a Pensions secretaries have had so little time in their job that they cannot possibly understand, let alone fix universal credit.
We have unemployment at an impressive low at the moment. This is down to people taking work that is on zero-hour contracts or seasonal work, all low paid. But Universal Credit is letting down the people who need it most, and someone needs to fix it. Abolish the charge for the phone line (which has now been done after huge pressure, but should never have been charged in the first place), pay as soon as possible, and send rent straight to landlords. Work must pay.
If it isn’t fixed, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister sooner than we think,