The government is facing heavy resistance, from both Labour and its own backbenchers, about the troubled Universal Credit programme. Both the delay (Universal Credit is paid six weeks in arrears) and the complexity (it rolls a series of individual benefits into one payment) are coming under fire.
But Downing Street and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, are determined to press ahead. The argument they are making, both in public – Theresa May tried out this line against Jeremy Corbyn in the House today – and in private – to win over worried Conservative backbenchers – is that the majority of people claiming Universal Credit are satisfied or very satisfied with the programme, and that more people on the scheme are also heading into the workplace than those on legacy benefits.
Both these statistics are true – but the government is drawing false comfort from them. Here’s why. As is entirely correct with any new programme, the government is rolling it out to “non-complex” cases first: in the main, men under the age of 30 without dependents (that’s “children, partners, or elderly relatives for whom they have caregiving responsibilities” in plain English).
For a whole raft of reasons, men under 30 without dependents are much more likely to head back into work quickly – they don’t have to negotiate hours that allow them to juggle child or elder care – and as they are much more likely to be leaving work with a final pay cheque or living at home, the payment in arrears is less likely to tip them into debt or leave them at risk of eviction. (As a result, they are also better placed to take advantage of some of the freedoms built into Universal Credit.)
What the government is telling its backbenchers, and seems to believe, is that the howls of pain and protest from the minority of the benefit’s current users are unrepresentative. The bad news is that actually these service users are more representative of the country at large – older, female, and with dependents. The pain – both political, and more importantly, actual – will likely be significantly greater than the government expects.