This month I have been urging the government to reconsider how it handles the “managed migration” of two million tax credit claimants onto Universal Credit. This will leave many low paid local people without income support for 5 weeks, the consequences of which could be disastrous. Former Prime Ministers from both main parties, Gordon Brown and John Major have both warned that this managed migration will backfire, and could even cause rioting.
Universal Credit has been an unadulterated shambles. It was introduced by then Conservative minister Iain Duncan Smith in 2010 with a view to being fully rolled out by 2017. Now, in 2018, it is not expected to be complete until 2023. It is a mess.
The concept behind Universal Credit was originally well intended. It would simplify the very complicated benefits system, meaning you need only make one application for support and entitlements, not several. It would streamline several very bureaucratic systems into one. It would be easier for people to navigate helping them access support more readily. It would cope better with the ever changing nature of people’s lives, work, living arrangements and relationships.
That was the theory. The reality is a nightmare. Every week my mailbag, inbox and surgeries bring more stories of local lives under serious strain because of UC.
Firstly, coming into effect at the height of the austerity drive, the government moved to use UC to reduce people’s income overall. There’s a debate to be had about welfare spending, but they did this in ways which penalised the most vulnerable overnight, causing untold hardship. It is unethical. It continues to be a significant problem, with families set to lose around £200 with the managed migration. These are the families in work, working hard, and in receipt of top ups because their income simply isn’t enough to provide for their children. They do not have £200 a month to lose.
Secondly, it is administrative chaos. The system does not in fact make it easier to report changes in your life circumstances but much harder. Delays of weeks and weeks are standard for new claims and amendments. This has led to a surge in foodbank use as people go for a month or more without income to feed their families. People live in fear of eviction notices because of unpaid rent. The whole point of the welfare system is as a safety net to prevent starvation and homelessness. Universal Credit has in fact provoked not prevented those things.
Thirdly, it is punitive. Claimants are sanctioned with even more weeks without income for alleged misdemeanours – I have had casework with people sanctioned for missing appointments whilst in intensive care, or whilst hospitalised while losing a baby. Again, there is a debate to be had about how to enable people out of welfare into work, but this cruel, disempowering and flawed system is causing an epidemic of mental ill health among concerned payments.
Fourthly, it is worst for women. Single parents, 90% of whom are women, are worse off. There is no work allowance for second earners in the household, also mostly women. Payments to couples living under the same roof go into only one account, which has been criticised by domestic abuse groups for making it considerably harder for victims to leave perpetrators and making financial control more likely to play a part in abusive relationships.
Fifthly, Universal Credit doesn’t work at all well if you are self-employed, and has therefore been accused of crushing entrepreneurialism. Lastly, with previous changes to the benefits system, the government switched people from the old system to the new system. With “managed migration”, claimants will be given a deadline by which they have to apply themselves, or lose out entirely.
If you’re affected and need help, please email me –firstname.lastname@example.org. The whole system is a public policy failure of epic proportions and needs to be revisited. Urgently.