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The many, many reasons Universal Credit is not fit for purpose

The New Statesman guide to a welfare overhaul that is already causing misery.

MPs are calling for the rollout of Universal Credit to be paused to allow time to fix a welfare system that the evidence suggests is broken. The New Statesman has been documenting the many problems associated with the controversial reform, which is designed to combine myriad types of welfare into one payment. 

From the devastating human cost of delayed payments and mistakes, to the chaos engulfing those responsible for administering the benefit, here are some of the many reasons why Universal Credit, at least in its current form, is not fit for purpose:

A woman with no resources is a woman who can’t leave: why universal credit is a feminist issue

By putting control of the household income in the hands of one individual and imposing lengthy assessment periods on people in crisis conditions, universal credit is giving support to abusers, and removing options from survivors.

What happens when you have to wait four months for Universal Credit?

“It makes you feel upset, it makes you feel depressed, because at the end of the day, you don’t have anything to support yourself with, and you’re seeing more and more money [owed], so you’re like, ok, who am I going to call?” he asks. “I haven’t got any parents, what am I meant to do? It does make you stressed.”

I was under 18 when I claimed Universal Credit – delays almost left me homeless

“I was one of the 'lucky' people to be a Universal Credit claimant in an early roll-out location," writes a young claimant. “In other words, I got to experience a lot of the early flaws of the system first-hand."

“It destroyed every ounce of life that I had”: how Universal Credit is pushing people to beg for money online

“It just felt hugely degrading,” says Heather, a 40-year-old single mother who claims UC and set up a GoFundMe page. “It was just somehow easier to put it on the internet and ask strangers to help me than it was to ask anybody that I knew.”

As a Universal Credit case manager, my job is turning away those in abject poverty

“I see masses of suffering on a daily basis," an anonymous case manager writes. "Case managers are well trained to deal with any claimants threatening suicide either by phone or by journal message, due to the recurrence... Those who have worked in Universal Credit since the early days have become hardened, having dealt with thousands of vulnerable people. It's very difficult to tell claimants, 'I'm sorry but we can't give you any more', even if we know that children will suffer and go hungry for weeks."

“It’s disrespectful”: Universal Credit claimants have to pay to call the benefits helpline

“If you’re actually really broke, you can’t find out what’s going on, you can’t contact anyone, you can’t do anything. So I think it’s a bit disrespectful that they’re actually charging you for phone calls. It should be a free service.”

“Absolute hell”: what it's like working on the front line of the Universal Credit roll-out

“I would say – pause the roll-out immediately," says a DWP worker worried about staff training and morale. “Going back isn’t an option. You pause it, and start recruiting sufficient staff to make it work."

The Universal Credit small print that could hit part-time working mums

Under Universal Credit, it's not enough to be in work. You have to be earning a certain amount as well. This small print could affect millions of part-time workers and second earners, often working mums. The rule seems likely to just remind them that they are not good enough, at least in the eyes of the DWP.

I'm a single working mum – Universal Credit forced me to go to the food bank

The first person testimony of one of those part-time working mums. She writes: “I couldn’t sleep all night – I just lay there panicking. I was trying to think, what bills do I have that I can miss paying?"

Down the Universal Credit rabbit hole – what happened when East Lothian changed benefits systems

This system is not just failing individuals and claimants, but it is also a system failing in objective terms. Martin Whitfield, the MP for East Lothian, a pilot area, writes about the first-hand experiences of his constituents. 

How Universal Credit advance payments can force struggling people into debt

Citizens Advice is on the front line when Universal Credit claims go wrong. The government claims these glitches can be warded off by "advance payments" - but these have to be paid back and, as Citizens Advice's Kayley Hignell writes, can push vulnerable people into debt. 

Single parent families are already struggling – universal credit is making things worse

The impact should not be underestimated – this is not just about finances, but families’ lives and the emotional stress and turmoil that can follow.

A woman with no resources is a woman who can’t leave: why Universal Credit is a feminist issue

In a couple, Universal Credit is paid to a single bank account, and changes depending on your joint earnings. But what happens if your partner receives a bonus, and doesn't want to share? 

The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

Universal Credit is sending families to food banks – it must be suspended

In one month alone, a food bank gave three-day food packages to 364 adults and 177 children, the vast majority of which were a result of benefit delays.

DWP letters telling people to call the universal credit helpline are ripping off claimants

“As she put the phone down and I reflected on the call, it felt like a scam. This was the government luring me into unnecessarily phoning up through fear of later being unable to pay for rent, food, bills, and tax.”

Universal credit's costly helpline exposes the inequality of an online-focused benefits system

"It is mainly poorer households who are least likely to have access to the internet, so the high cost of calling up about universal credit is likely to hit them hardest."

A false epiphany: Easterhouse reveals the chaos of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare revolution

“People will misuse their Universal Credit, rightly or wrongly. 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.”

Iain Duncan Smith is at risk of wasting billions on the Universal Credit scheme

The DWP expects significant savings from its digital service, but does not yet have a contingency plan should the digital service be delayed or fail.

Universal Credit: the anatomy of a government failure

“From what I know in the context of the reasons for some past IT-related failures, I’d say that Universal Credit is in a worse position than some big programmes because it started, and continued, without senior management having any clear idea how it would work.”

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.