Universal Credit has “real problems”. Not my words but those of Amber Rudd, the fifth Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since 2016. Her description is a masterclass in political understatement.
Universal Credit has been a disaster. Now six years behind schedule, each of the programme’s many (and necessary) delays have only served to reveal more of its inherent flaws. Those already suffering from its implementation know only too well the damage it has already caused. And millions more fear being subjected to Universal Credit in future.
Only a few weeks ago, MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee savaged the Universal Credit benefit sanctions regime, describing it as “pointlessly cruel”. They found that single parents, care leavers and people with disabilities and health conditions were “disproportionately vulnerable” to – and affected by – sanctions.
Instead of making life easier for the millions of households who rely on social security, Universal Credit is driving people into debt. Forced to wait a minimum of five weeks for their first payment, claimants face excessive deductions and fluctuating payments that they can’t predict and don’t understand, with inevitably dire consequences.
Far from making it easier to receive support, Universal Credit is simply making it easier for many of the poorest in our society – including the low-paid – to fall further into poverty. One UNISON member recently told us that signing up to the new “easy system” was quite the opposite. It took four and a half hours just to confirm who she was. She tried her passport, birth certificate, and her provisional driving licence to “verify” her identity, but was turned down each time.
Those who have compared the rollout of Universal Credit to the Poll Tax are, if anything, understating the anger that is growing amongst those already hammered by a decade of austerity. The government clearly senses the risks. That’s why it has announced a further delay in starting to move three million people across from tax credits and housing benefit to Universal Credit.
Yet the safeguards to prevent vulnerable people going without money, food, or being unable to heat their homes simply aren’t there. We are only months away from the next Universal Credit crisis. MPs will debate the plans later this month – yet as things stand, the government will be proceeding as planned.
Carrying on regardless means – according to Resolution Foundation analysis – three million people being worse off under Universal Credit. It also means no change in the work allowance for single people and couples without children – which we’ve shown benefits the Treasury more than it benefits working people. Every year in the Budget – and the recent one was no different – the Chancellor stands up and trumpets the increase in the national living wage as a major boost for low-paid workers. Yet in reality, thousands of workers on the minimum wage will only see a fraction of any increase because of cuts previously made to the universal credit work allowance.
A system where those who work hard on low pay don’t actually see most of any pay rise and where the biggest winner is HM Treasury is not only unfair, it’s utterly perverse. This government claims to care about “strivers, grafters and carers”, but what they’ve really done is carelessly and callously take from some of those most in need of support.
It’s difficult to imagine any circumstances in which Universal Credit can be rolled out without causing untold damage to millions who have been crushed by austerity. It’s difficult to see how the system can deliver anything but misery. It’s difficult to see how any government – even this one – can justify ploughing on regardless in the face of such overwhelming evidence.
And the consequences of doing so don’t bear thinking about.
Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON