On April 28, the Government will start borrowing more to borrow less

With Universal Credit, the Government is trying to invest in the future. Why can't it do that elsewhere?

You wouldn't know it from their criticism of Labour, but for the last year, the Government has been borrowing more to borrow less.

If its plans for Universal Credit come to fruition, spending on welfare will be reduced by millions, both through efficiency savings and reduced payouts. There will be a knock-on effect, too, from the changed incentives Universal Credit creates. With a smoother phase-out of benefits as claimants' income increases, the hope is that fewer people will find themselves in the situation where working more leaves them with less disposable cash. More people in employment means more tax revenues, fewer benefit payouts and faster growth.

But Universal Credit, the first "pathfinder" of which is starting in Manchester this month, has required an enormous outlay to get off the ground. Because it integrates six different benefits, the software required to calculate the correct payout is costly, and has had to be specially commissioned at great expense. It's made more complex by the fact that it is supposed to synchronise information out-of-work benefit claimants with Job Match, a job-search site. On top of that, the commissioning appears to have been done ineptly; as the Guardian's Patrick Wintour writes, "suspicion remains that the software is not ready".

But even if it's been performed ineptly – and incorporates a number of punishing reductions in transfers to poor people – the idea behind Universal Credit is sound. A massive initial outlay to modernise the infrastructure which underpins our social safety net, which will lead to reduced expenditures in the following years, ultimately contributing to the deficit reduction programme. Or, in simpler terms: Borrowing more to borrow less.

The Conservatives know that reducing the economy to glib talking points plays well in PMQs and TV interviews, and so can't quite drop that handy stick with which to beat Labour. But they also know, and demonstrate through their actions, that borrowing more to borrow less is an entirely sensible course of action for an economy like ours. Some infrastructure is falling apart; some more has glaringly obvious modernisation opportunities; and yet more won't be fit for purpose when (if?) the economy begins to return to growth.

Investment is a sound economic strategy. It's what the Government is trying to do with Universal Credit, and it's what they should be doing with a lot more projects.

IDS, Universal Credit's creator. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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