Five reasons Universal Credit will fail - even if they sort out the IT

Duncan Smith's crusade to force eight million people onto a botched new benefit is a recipe for debt, eviction, poverty and distress.

Another week, another government blunder on Universal Credit. Most attacks on Iain Duncan Smith have been about the administrative shambles at the top. But there are problems just as serious on the ground - and eight million unemployed and low income claimants will suffer the consequences. Here are five key problem areas we can expect to hear more about as a larger number of claimants are transferred to the new benefit.

1. Claimants have to manage benefits online

Under the new system, all benefit claimants will ultimately have to apply for and manage their benefits online. Many will be unable to do this. Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) research released last month suggests two-thirds of their clients will fail without significant help. For some, it's a lack of digital skills and confidence. The government promises support - but it's hard to imagine austerity-obsessed ministers laying on tailored training sessions for several million claimants. Cash-strapped charities and councils are not likely to plug the gap either.

It's also not enough to be digitally literate. Computers and the internet are expensive, particularly on £71.70 a week. Libraries are not the obvious solution they may first seem - 1,000 will have closed by 2016, travel is costly and even impossible in rural areas, and public computers are often time-limited and oversubscribed. 

2. Tenants pay their landlords directly

Universal Credit rolls housing, unemployment and other benefits into one. Currently, around a quarter of housing benefit claimants have their money paid to their landlord directly, because they are seen as "vulnerable" or have previously missed payments. The government wants them to take responsibility for paying rent themselves, and will transfer the money into their bank accounts for them to do so. 

Landlords recently warned this may stop them letting to Universal Credit claimants as they fear tenants will be unwilling or unable to pay their rent. Arrears rose from around £20,000 to £140,000 among council tenants in Torfaen, Wales, just seven months after a pilot of the new system began. Housing associations in some trial areas have had to hire new staff to chase up residents in arrears.

Part of the problem lies in access to banking. Nearly half of the CAB's clients were unable to pay priority bills using a bank account:

Some need help understanding how they can use direct debits and standing orders. Others do not feel comfortable using services that seemingly undermine their ability to control the money that comes out of their pocket. Money may be tight, or they may fear becoming overdrawn and incurring charges.

But much of the problem is linked to the challenges of budgeting on a low income, something not helped by a further part of the Universal Credit reforms - monthly payments.

3. Claimants receive the benefit monthly

Paying out Universal Credit in a single monthly sum makes budgeting far more difficult as money has to be made to last a far longer period. Claimants currently receive different benefits across the month. According to the CAB, many will struggle to "adapt existing patterns of managing their money to spread their costs". Paying housing benefit to claimants only makes the challenge harder. It will be the first time some have had thousands of pounds lining their accounts. 

"If you have more money, it is tempting to use it to cover other, more immediate pressures," said Richard Goodman, a CAB manager in Hammersmith, where Universal Credit has already been rolled out. Keeping warm, getting three meals a day and replacing children's school shoes are often greater priorities than rent.

Some CAB clients also lacked basic budgeting skills. As with IT, there are fears that government funding for support will be inadequate.  Goodman, whose branch currently offer budgeting lessons to those requesting it, says: "We're worried we won't be able to satisfy demand."

4. Officials are unprepared for difficult cases

So far Universal Credit has only been piloted and rolled out in a handful of areas for several thousand claimants. Only the simplest cases - single, first-time claimants without dependents - have been included in the trials and phased launch. Goodman suggested this initial group is likely to be mainly young people, and to pose fewer problems than other claimant types. One can only assume Duncan Smith is more interested in a smooth rollout that appears "successful" than in learning from the harder cases - the long-term unemployed, immigrants, single parents, large families, the sick and the disabled. As Goodman put it:

It’s a soft launch. It doesn’t stress-test the system. For instance, claimants will probably have greater digital literacy than others with more complicated circumstances.

If they’re dogmatic about the 2017 deadline, they’ll squeeze a lot of people onto universal credit without fully testing it. And that means systems crashing, people not being paid and lots of hardship and misery.

5. The cost of living has not been addressed

Budgeting to the last penny is tough on any income, let alone incomes under sustained attack. Half a million people have been forced to turn to food banks, and there is little to suggest the queues will shorten any time soon. With energy firms hiking prices, landlords increasing rents and affordable housebuilding slowing to a trickle, the rising cost of living means every penny has to go further for unemployed and low-income families.

Four in five new jobs pay under £8 an hour, and are often precarious. 2.4 million people are unemployed, chasing 0.8 million vacancies. Benefits have been slashed, capped, frozen and abolished across the board, their recipients stigmatised and sanctioned with ever greater ferocity.

All in all, shoving eight million people onto a botched new benefit in such circumstances is a toxic recipe for debt, arrears, eviction, poverty and distress. Will the Prime Minister evict Iain Duncan Smith, too, in a reshuffle before 2015? Sadly, even if he gets the chop, there seems little prospect of millionaire IDS  having to sign on to universal credit for a taste of his own medicine.

Tom Belger is a student journalist. Follow him at @tom_belger.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images
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Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.