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17 August 2018updated 24 Jul 2021 2:36pm

Universal Credit discriminates against women by design. Here’s how

The new benefit punishes those who do not fit a 1950s stereotype.

By Alison Garnham

At a recent meeting on women and poverty, I was asked to speak about Universal Credit (UC). It forced me to think about how Universal Credit is hugely problematic for women, particularly mothers. Eventually I concluded it was a case of discrimination by design. Here’s how it goes.

Back in 2011, when the Bill introducing Universal Credit was published, we explained in detail how the policy was fundamentally flawed, and proposed amendments to fix it. Very little change was made. And since then it has actually got worse, with the 2015 Budget freezing the value of payments for a further four years and cutting work allowances (the amount people can earn before Universal Credit is tapered away). Those Budget cuts blew great holes in Universal Credit’s ability to support paid work and make people better-off in work. As Universal Credit rolls out, it is now rolling out cuts.

Women are disadvantaged in Universal Credit in a number of ways:

1. A return to the 1950s

Far from looking like a “modern” benefit, Universal Credit actually resembles a return to the 1950s family wage model. The claim that one payment into a household (rather than two payments split between two adults) is like real life – in a country where nearly 75 per cent of mothers are in paid work – is a complete nonsense.

In most families, there is money coming in from different sources: two wages, different benefits, wage subsidy, child benefit. Nor is this how couples get out of poverty – it takes at least one and a half paid workers to do this, if not two. 

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Domestic violence is given as one circumstance where benefits can be split between two adults in a household. But a woman being subjected to domestic violence would risk making herself more vulnerable if she drew attention to the violence by requesting split payments.

2. Second earners are ignored

There is no work allowance for second earners, who are mainly women, and, post budget cuts, a lower one for lone parents (90 per cent of whom are women). Universal Credit is a benefit that creates little or no incentive for second earners to enter or progress in paid work – this is clearly dysfunctional in this day and age.

3. It entrenches traditional divisions of labour

The insistence of UC on dividing a couple with children into a “main earner” and a “main carer” (or second earner) in the first place is problematic. Why can’t both men and women with children restrict their working hours and share the responsibility of caring for children? Two three-quarter time earners is surely better for everybody!

4. Younger women are penalised

Lone parents under the age of 25 receive a lower rate of benefit, unlike in the previous benefits system. How exactly are their responsibilities and costs any different to those of older mothers? And this group is doubly disadvantaged by a lower minimum wage rate for under-25s.

5. Childcare payments are out of sync with costs

The treatment of childcare and housing costs are the two greatest expenses faced by families. Help with childcare costs is generally paid at the end of the assessment period in which the care is received, yet mothers make upfront payments to providers and wait weeks for Universal Credit to reimburse them, which in turn causes them to fall into arrears on their rent and bills. And childcare costs do not always arise neatly, each month. 

6. The benefit cap disproportionately affects women

Of households subject to the benefit cap, 93 per cent have children, 72 per cent are lone parents (76 per cent with children under five and 31 per cent with a child under two). The vast majority of these will be women. These claimants are sitting ducks because they have young children so face barriers to work, and can’t find affordable housing. Those with babies and toddlers are not required to look for work in the benefits system, yet they are still hit by the cap. And the monthly assessment of Universal Credit entitlement is causing some workers to be benefit-capped because of the day in the month they are being paid.

7. The rape clause forces women to relive trauma

The two-child policy limits child allowances in Universal Credit to two children, with an exemption when a child is conceived through rape. Immoral and impracticable, the policy fails on every count. Not only is it administratively difficult, but it counts some children as being worth less than others, and interferes in those most personal and precious decisions about life, fertility and family size.

Women applying for the exemption known as the rape clause risk more trauma and humiliation, because they must obtain a statement from an approved third party that their circumstances are consistent with such a conception. 

8. Sanctions affect lone parents

Job centre staff can waive work-related requirements for lone parents – 90 per cent of whom are women – but the flexibility is contained in guidance and not regulations, so allowances are not always being made as required for lack of childcare, school hours, and other reasonable work restrictions. The rate of sanctioning of lone parents – usually mothers –  is, as a result, very high.

The sheer size of the losses for families with children (around £1,000 per year) and for lone parents (roughly £2,340 a year), due to cuts to Universal Credit, is astounding. There will be one million more children in poverty as a result – compared with what Universal Credit originally promised. It was meant to reduce child poverty, but now this promise lies in tatters.

But if we’re stuck with UC, what are the solutions? There are ways to make UC work better – splitting benefits automatically or on demand, a second earner work allowance, reinvesting in work allowances for lone parents, changing to weekly assessment and fortnightly payment, allowing averaging of costs, increasing rates for lone parents under 25, ensuring entitlement to and take-up of legacy benefits like jobseekers’ allowance, ending the freezes, abolishing the benefit cap and the two-child policy, ending fixed-length sanctions and the regime that imposes them too easily – affecting lone parents worse than anyone.

We could also consider not rolling it out to families with children, as it is currently not fit for purpose. 

And, one thing they absolutely must not do is to roll up child benefit into Universal Credit. If anything, Universal Credit makes the case for reinvestment in child benefit all the more powerful. In CPAG’s experience in the last three years working in food banks in Tower Hamlets, destitute mothers arrive with one source of income – child benefit. They have it because it works. It is by way of a basic income for children.

Discrimination by design cannot go on: serious reform of Universal Credit is needed, right now.

Alison Garnham is the chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group. A longer version of this essay is available on the CPAG website. 

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