More trouble for IDS: how claimants are unprepared for Universal Credit

Ahead of Duncan Smith's grilling by MPs, a new study shows 92 per cent of claimants are unprepared for the new system in at least one area.

Iain Duncan Smith will be grilled by MPs on Wednesday about the progress (or lack of) in implementing Universal Credit and there's further evidence today of why so many across Whitehall are troubled by the Work and Pensions Secretary's grand projet

Three months before UC, which will replace six of the main means-tested benefits and tax credits with a single payment, is introduced nationally, the first independent survey of recipients by Citizens Advice has found that 92 per cent are unprepared for the new system in at least one area. Changes that will be introduced include monthly, rather than weekly or fortnightly, payments, a new online system for accessing benefits and the direct payment of housing benefit to claimants, rather than landlords. 

Previous research has found that claimants believe monthly payment will make it harder for them to budget and this concern is reinforced by the Citizens Advice study, with three-quarters saying they could not alone "keep track of my money on a monthly basis". In addition, two-thirds say they will need help to "get online and manage my universal credit account". One claimant, Derek Mallet, from Birmingham, said he was "concerned about having to use the internet in order to set up and get benefits. I have never been on a computer." This unpreparedness, Citizens Advice says, is "widespread across people of all backgrounds and ages".

In response, the charity is pushing for the government to allow claimants to request fortnightly rather than monthly payments and for their rent to be paid directly to their landlord for the first year of the new system. Gillian Guy said: "Our report shows that an overwhelming majority of people do not feel ready to deal with universal credit. Our findings must act as a wake-up call for government.

"The results demonstrate yet again how vital it is that implementing universal credit is not left to chance. There is clearly a breakdown in the system if 90% of potential claimants are not ready to deal with this major change to their payments, and ministers must act urgently to address this problem."

For now, the DWP insists that it is working with "councils, social landlords and community groups, including Citizens Advice, to offer support" to claimants. But if Universal Credit is not to become, in Labour's words, "universal chaos", it does look increasingly likely that Duncan Smith will have to accept the changes urged by Citizens Advice and others. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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He went in to report on crystal meth – before long, Luke Williams was hooked

The journalist moved into a house of meth addicts to investigate the drug. Within a month, he was using, too.

“I got a story, a very good story,” writes the young Australian journalist Luke Williams in the first chapter of his new book, The Ice Age. “Only it wasn’t the one I was expecting.” For three months in 2014, he lived in a house of crystal meth addicts in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, to investigate the drug. Within a month, he had forgotten why he was there. He had become addicted himself.

What follows is a dizzying retelling of his experiences, which veers between stories of Williams’s psychotic episodes and facts about his drug of choice. His descent into addiction happened in a nondescript house in Pakenham, a suburb to the south-east of Melbourne – “one of the most badly affected meth areas in Australia”.

Williams, now 36, grew up nearby and went to school there. He already knew two meth users in the area well enough to rent a room with them – an out-of-work labourer called Smithy and his live-in ex-girlfriend Beck. It was they who gave Williams his first shot of crystal meth, less than three weeks into his stay.

The crystal form of methamphetamine, also known as “ice”, is an addictive and powerful stimulant that causes euphoria. It heightens alertness, energy and arousal, with comedowns that can lead to aggression and violence.

It has gained cultural significance in recent years because of the US television drama Breaking Bad, in which an otherwise mild-mannered and law-abiding chemistry teacher “cooks” and sells crystal meth. Yet not much is known about the long-term effects of the drug, which in some countries – such as the Czech Republic – is a graver problem than heroin. In the UK, crystal meth activity is low and mainly linked to the gay chemsex party scene, where drugs are used to enhance group sex experiences.


Photo: Scribe

The drug is linked to severe psychosis, which Williams experienced first hand. Detailed in his book in a neat little list, like a morbid twist on a teenage diary, are Williams’s delusions, entitled: “My psychotic ideas”. Some are harrowing. His conviction that his parents are trying to poison him, for example, which results in him threatening to kill them “with my bare f***ing hands”. Others are amusing: he abandons his journalistic endeavour almost immediately in the belief that his calling is to become a famous rap star.

“I think that I could maybe do spoken word, but rapping? No, no,” he chuckles, when he speaks to me via Skype from Nepal, where he is researching another story. He says that he wanted to investigate crystal meth use partly because he was bored. He had left journalism to work at a law firm, and his life “lacked a bit of kick”.

Although he describes himself as “white, middle-class [and] educated”, he was fixated by the characters from his youth on the city’s outskirts. “I missed [them] in the middle-class world; it seemed so polite and clean . . . I looked forward to getting back there, living cheap, and when I saw the state some of my friends were in, I was very curious to know what was going on with them. Nobody was writing about the working class and the underclass.”

Williams quickly shifted from observer to addict. In alarming and frank detail, his book tells of marathon masturbation sessions (his record was 16 hours), physical altercations and a thick fog of paranoia. He would search his name online and become convinced that anything written by, or about, the name “Luke Williams” involved him.

He became so obsessed with the memory of an ex-boyfriend called Nathaniel that he believed that Smithy had turned his ex “into a transsexual, so that he and his mates could have their way with the new female Nathaniel”.

After three months, Williams was kicked out of the house by an aggressive Smithy, who thought the journalist was stealing his cannabis (he wasn’t). The nearby hospital gave him no help, so Williams ended up on the streets. After a lot of persuasion, he eventually returned to safety with his parents. He has been recovering ever since.

There is talk of a crystal meth “epidemic” in rural and suburban areas of Australia, which has among the highest usage of the drug in the world. The number of people using it there tripled from 2011 to 2016, and 7 per cent of Australians over the age of 14 have reported using amphetamines or methamphetamines (in the UK, it’s 1 per cent).

Although Luke Williams’s story is an insight into one of the world’s most dangerous substances, it’s also a lesson in doing your research. The first time Williams took crystal meth, it was injected by one of his housemates and he believed that it was no different from powdered meth – more commonly known as speed – which he had been using occasionally to give him the energy to write.

The group called everything “meth”, regardless of what they were taking. “Our lingo just didn’t differentiate,” Williams tells me. “People don’t really understand the difference. I got the opportunity to say in the public domain that [crystal meth] is different . . . It eats away at your inside.”

The Ice Age: A Journey Into Crystal-Meth Addiction by Luke Williams is published by Scribe.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era