Universal discredit: Hungry for change

After years of stone-faced denials over the well-documented shortcomings of Universal Credit, the Government has finally given ground. But are these shifts anything more than a feint?

THE road to hell, the saying goes, is paved with good intentions. In theory, Universal Credit was supposed to be a simpler, more flexible social security benefit capable of adeptly responding to people’s changing circumstances. In practice, however, too-often it has proved a nightmare for the poor souls on the receiving end.

The benefit’s well-documented shortcomings quickly made it a notorious reform, generating controversy and anguish in equal measure. It soon gained a reputation for draconian cruelty and indifference to the plight of the vulnerable, in stark contrast to the rhetorical claims of ministers.

Report after report, from thinktanks, charities, trade bodies, Parliamentary committees and more, laid bare its faults and urged reform; Universal Credit was proving itself a pretty effective mechanism for generating hardship, rent arrears, even hunger, destitution and homelessness. Not exactly what you’d call a safety net (see below).

Still, the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) has stuck to its guns, steadfast against all criticism. Until recently, that is.

Since her appointment in November 2018, secretary of state for work and pensions, Amber Rudd, has moved to strike a seemingly more conciliatory note. In January, she announced proposed changes to ‘civilise’ Universal Credit.

“Let’s not forget that Universal Credit began with near universal support – across party lines, and from charities and stakeholders,” Rudd said. “Because everyone agrees with the principles of helping people into work, making work pay, and providing support in times of need.

“And I want Universal Credit to retain that support as we deliver it in practice. This means delivering it in a way that meets the needs of claimants, who come from every conceivable background and each with the potential to achieve their ambitions.

“In welfare, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and Universal Credit offers the opportunity to move away from that. It must treat individuals as individuals – and I will set-out the first steps I will take to achieve this.”

First off, she revealed, the extension of the two-child limit on Universal Credit to the 15,000 or so families with children born before April 2017, which was to have come into effect in February, is being abandoned. However, it will continue to affect those born thereafter.

Rudd has also given ground on an issue that has long bugged landlords; a new online system for direct payments for private landlords is to be established, she announced. Another key concern is Universal Credit’s monthly payment cycle; the secretary of state said that the DWP will be working towards more frequent payments, to make budgeting easier. However, the five-week wait for the first payment continues.

The biggest climb-down concerns the plan to shift people currently on the so-called legacy benefits to Universal Credit. The full migration has been put on hold, pending the outcome of a pilot involving 10,000 claimants that will run from July this year.

Once this ‘test phase’ is complete, the DWP will seek Parliament’s permission for the full migration. If nothing else, it represents a breathing space for all concerned. This isn’t expected – or intended – to affect the full roll-out of Universal Credit; as already planned, it is aimed to be completed by the end of 2023.

Given the scale of grief catalogued in the wealth of reports into Universal Credit’s implementation and impact, any concession is bound to be taken as good news. Industry reaction, however, has inevitably come with many a ‘but’.

“Amber Rudd’s announcement that she plans to stop the freeze on benefits in 2020 is a very positive one. We are also glad that the Government has listened to concerns about the two child benefit cap and decided to change tack,” said Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF).

“Families with more than two children born before the two child policy was introduced were unfairly penalised by the cap. Social housing tenants told us that the cap pushed them into poverty and rent arrears, and that ultimately it was their children who were suffering.

“We must remember that the change to the two-child policy will not apply to families with children born after the cap was introduced in 2017. These families will still be just as vulnerable to falling into poverty as those who are now being exempted. This policy causes real hardship for thousands of people, and we would urge the secretary of state to remove the cap altogether.”

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of homelessness charity, Crisis, welcomed the announcement on direct payment to landlords. “However,” he added, “the years of under-investment in housing benefit continues to be a major cause of homelessness and is undermining the success of the Universal Credit; leaving many to struggle with rent arrears, or worse, being forced into homelessness. We need urgent action now, so that Universal Credit covers the true cost of people’s rent.

“The Government must address the current system to ensure stability for private renters and halt the spiralling costs of expensive temporary accommodation.”

Campbell Robb, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), said: “This is a welcome statement of intent from the new secretary of state … Universal Credit has the potential to loosen the grip of poverty, and it is positive that many of the concerns expressed by claimants have been heard.

“Allowing more flexibility on the regularity of payments and making it easier to ensure they go to the main carer in a family, should make a material difference to claimants, as should improving the processes for paying for housing and childcare.

“There is still much more to do to deliver on the secretary of state’s ambitions and create a country which works for everyone. The benefits freeze continues to be the single biggest policy sweeping families into poverty.

“If the Government is serious about being on the side of low-income families they will take immediate action to end this freeze one year early.”

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “It’s encouraging to see the secretary of state taking a fresh look at the welfare system. Universal Credit has to work in practice as well as in theory. We welcome any move to make it a more flexible system that can be adapted to suit the way people live their lives.

“But to really get to grips with the problems of Universal Credit, the Government will need to go further. This means investing more in the benefit, so people have enough to live on and don’t have to wait five weeks for a first payment, while also making sure it is paid in a way that works for people’s individual circumstances.

“Universal Credit must work for everyone, which is why we’ll continue to monitor its impact on the people who come to us for help.”

It’s likely that Universal Credit’s starring role in real life dystopian horror is far from done.

# # #

Government health warning

UNIVERSAL Credit is ‘mad, bad and dangerous to claim’, suggest academics from Teeside and Newcastle Universities.

In a study commissioned by Gateshead Council and published in November, researchers concluded it is bad for people’s health and well-being, claiming the system is “complicated, dysfunctional and punitive”.

What’s more, it is prone to administrative errors, for which claimants pay the price. Typically, claimants were forced into debt, rent arrears, and extreme hardship, leading to serious consequences for their health.

Led by Dr Mandy Cheetham, from Teesside University’s Centre for Public Health Research, the study focused on both claimants and staff working to support them in making their claims.

Between April and October last year, they spoke to 33 people receiving Universal Credit and 37 support staff. Many of the claimants were considered vulnerable due to physical or mental health issues.

“Claimants were under severe stress as a result of the claims process and some people had been so low they said they had considered suicide,” said Cheetham. “The process of claiming and then trying to survive in the system, with the constant threat of sanctions was making people increasingly anxious and depressed, and worsening existing health problems.”

Co-author Dr Suzanne Moffatt from Newcastle University added: “We found no evidence that moving onto Universal Credit was helping people into employment. The design of Universal Credit simply does not work for the people we interviewed.”

Earlier, in October 2018, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of MPs warned that Universal Credit was causing “unacceptable hardship” and condemned the DWP’s callous disregard to the suffering it has caused.

Published just ahead of the Budget, which saw the Chancellor provide a further £4.5 billion to help ease its impact, the report wasn’t the first time the committee has had cause to be critical of the flagship welfare policy. In 2013, it raised concerns about the DWP’s culture of “reporting good news and denying problems”. In further reports in 2015 and 2016 the committee warned about a continued “lack of transparency”.

“This [latest] report provides further damning evidence of a culture of indifference at DWP – a department disturbingly adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support,” said PAC chair, Meg Millier MP.

“Its apparent determination to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of claimants, frontline organisations and Parliament is of real concern. The culture needs to change.”

And, of course, in November Universal Credit found infamy on the international stage for the damning criticism it received from UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston.

In his report, the Australian scholar noted: “As I spoke with local authorities and the voluntary sector about their preparations for the future rollout of Universal Credit, I was struck by how much their mobilization resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic. They have expended significant expense and energy to protect people from what is supposed to be a support system.”

NH

This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine, #3 Spring 2019

Image: A scene from I, Daniel Blake (2016) directed by Ken Loach. Copyright Joss Barratt, Sixteen Films.

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