Universal Credit always endangered women – arrogant ministers didn’t listen

Just because you believe hard enough in an ideology doesn’t mean it’ll work.

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Remember when they first came up with Universal Credit? You have to stretch your mind back – to when dinosaurs roamed Whitehall and Iain Duncan Smith was inexplicably regarded as a voice of authority. OK, so not so different from now.

The former work and pensions secretary and current Brexiteer airwaves-botherer first announced his plan to overhaul the welfare system during 2010’s Conservative Party conference.

In that speech, which twice claimed Labour’s welfare system punished parents for living together, there was a hint at his grand plan – saving money on benefits, yes, but protecting the family unit as a social mission.

“Strong, stable families” are a “pathway out of poverty”, he told the conference hall – compounding his plan in a second speech at the Arlington Centre in Camden the following month:

“We recognise there is no better shield from child poverty than strong and stable families,” he said, referring to “people who suffer high levels of family breakdown”.

In the Universal Credit consultation document of July 2010, 21st Century Welfare, “strengthening the family” was one of seven guidelines outlined by the government to guide the reform – repeated in the follow-up white paper establishing the policy that November.

Somehow, this emphasis on family stability translated into paying Universal Credit – which rolls a household’s benefits into one, monthly payment – into one bank account for the entire household by default.

Each household nominates one account to receive the monthly payments.

Now we can see how that brainwave worked out. A report by the work and pensions select committee has found that this set-up risks a family’s income going entirely into an abusive partner’s bank account – making partners and children more dependent on their abuser and unable to leave.

Calling for an overhaul of this payment system, the committee chair Frank Field had strong words for the government.

“This is not the 1950s,” he said. “Not only does Universal Credit’s single household payment bear no relation to the world of work, it is out of step with modern life and turns back the clock on decades of hard-won equality for women.”

Campaigners were pointing this out long before the change came in. Women would be vulnerable to abusive or coercive partners, they warned. Without access to money in their own accounts, they would be at risk of being controlled financially and trapped in an abusive household.

Back in 2015, years before Universal Credit started being introduced nationally, I visited Easterhouse – the Glasgow estate where Duncan Smith himself had his weepy “epiphany” about inequality in 2002. There, Universal Credit endangering women was already a concern.

“If it’s [the money] all lumped into one bank account, and only the partner or husband has access – that’s a bad, sorry road,” I was told by Jimmy Wilson, then the head of local grassroots charity FARE (Family Action Rogerfield & Easterhouse), which had originally shown Duncan Smith around on his visit.

But no one listened to these concerns and the ensuing warnings of domestic abuse survivors as the policy unfolded.

At the moment, the only action available is to call the department. If a couple breaks up or a partner leaves the household, they have to inform the Department for Work and Pensions and start a separate claim – which could leave them without payment for weeks.

If someone is being denied access to their money by a partner, they are advised to call the Universal Credit helpline (which has a notorious volume of repeated and failed calls).

“Alternative payment arrangements are considered on a case-by-case basis and assessed on their individual merits,” reads the Department website, which nevertheless insists that “wherever possible, these alternative payment arrangements will be temporary”.

After years of warnings, culminating in an inquiry by MPs deeming it dangerous, how is it still government policy that this is the preferred set-up, and should be maintained “wherever possible”?

A simple answer. Arrogance. Arrogantly believing that ideological zeal – that evangelical obsession with keeping families together preached by Iain Duncan Smith all those years ago – would make this policy work, and anyone pointing out flaws was simply a non-believer.

Just another example of how ministers insist on “policy-based evidence”, as some in Whitehall bitterly put it, to ignore huge, dangerous problems in their ideological missions.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.