The objections to Iain Duncan Smith’s master plan to transform welfare – the Universal Credit (UC) – are rapidly mounting up. Earlier this month, a commission led by Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson warned that 450,000 disabled people would receive less under the scheme, despite Duncan Smith’s promise that there would be “no losers”. Now, a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests that it could leave claimants “trapped in poverty” by failing to fulfil the coalition’s pledge to “make work pay”. The foundation warns that while the scheme will incentivise people to take mini-jobs of fewer than 16 hours week, it will not “encourage” recipients to go on to search for full-time work. “Marginal increases in earnings alone are unlikely to be sufficient incentive to move into full-time work, with small financial gains likely to be wiped out by costs such as childcare and travel,” the report says.
The JRF, which has long supported the scheme in principle, also warns that UC, ostensibly a simplification of the welfare system, will leave claimants facing “a more complex benefits system than before”. The shift from fortnightly to monthly payments could result in low-income families running out of money before the end of each month. The report suggets that “Recipients may have to borrow money to bridge the gap, leaving them to start their universal credit claim in debt … it may create an unfair bias against women, with child-related support not necessarily reaching the children it is intended for.”
And then, of course, there’s the question of whether the computer system on which UC is based will actually work. In theory, benefit payments will be automatically adjusted as earnings vary, ensuring that claimants are always better off in employment than out of work. But that relies on real-time data transfers between HM Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, something many fear will prove impossible. As Rafael noted earlier this month, “The question being asked with increasing urgency (but still mostly in private) by pretty much everyone involved in welfare policy is this: if the DWP can’t seem to administer the existing benefits system properly, how on earth are they going to manage the switch to UC?” The JRF urges the government to provide details about stand-by arrangements if systems crash and to consider creating an ombudsman to deal with complaints.
With the UC “pathfinders” due to launch next April and the national launch set for October of the same year, time is short for Duncan Smith to convince the sceptics. In the words of public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge, an ever-greater number of people believe that the project is “a train crash waiting to happen; there is too much going on”.