Don’t be fooled by Amber Rudd’s “no bullshit” response to her Universal Credit grilling

MPs questioned the Work & Pensions Secretary about the new benefit system, which she has concerns about – but still defends.

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Four weeks into the job, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd had her first outing before the Work & Pensions Select Committee – defending the disastrous new welfare system, Universal Credit.

Her priorities in the job – making sure people have “access to the cash in good time”, are “secure in their houses” and in “payments to their landlords”, and making sure the benefit “really works for women and their families” – suggested that from the beginning Rudd was aware of its key problems:

  • The five-week payment delays driving people into debt and poverty (food bank use increases in areas where Universal Credit is rolled out, including in Rudd’s constituency of Hastings, as she reported herself during the hearing).
  • Claimants falling into rent arrears and facing eviction because of delayed payments.
  • Single household payments putting women in danger of being trapped in abusive households, and a two-child benefit limit punishing families.

Rudd told the committee of MPs that she would “like to keep an open mind to” slowing the rate of moving claimants onto the new system. “We will learn and see how long we need in order to ensure it’s effective,” she said, saying individuals’ experiences should be prioritised over “sticking to a prescribed timetable” – suggesting further delays in its rollout.

She admitted her “concerns about the number of appeals that get through” for Personal Independence Payments (when disability benefit assessments are overturned) which she said are “a lot” and “indicate that maybe those earlier decisions could be better made”, and also suggested some claimants shouldn’t be assessed for their eligibility as frequently.

She also revealed that “I haven’t yet been able to get cross-government support for the proposals I want to do” on ensuring more vulnerable claimants don’t lose out by moving from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit. Rudd wants to bring proposals forward on this aspect of the migration process in January.

While she was praised by committee chair Frank Field MP for avoiding “bullshit”, and admitted “it’s not just tinkering; there have been problems”, in reality she stopped short of any meaningful overhaul of Universal Credit – and defended the most problematic aspects of the social security system.

Regarding single household payments – whereby all benefits are paid into one bank account per household, therefore endangering victims of domestic abuse – Rudd said she wanted to, “ensure the main payment is made to the primary carer, and I’m going to be coming back I hope with more proposals on that in due course”.

However, she also defended the principle of single payments per household “to protect the taxpayer” and describing it as “the fair way to do it”:  “I think split payments should be available when there is a particular need, but not as the normal principle.”

She also defended the two-child benefit limit as “fair to the taxpayer”, and said jobseekers should enter insecure work to avoid being sanctioned (“the principle of sanctions is that there is a conditionality… if people are offered work, they should take it”) – even though they were not obliged to take zero-hour contract jobs under the old system.

This is why Rudd’s admission of “concerns” about Universal Credit isn’t laudable simply for being candid. In fact, that makes it worse. Far from the wilful blindness and ideological zeal of its creator and former DWP Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Rudd knows full well how bad the reform is, but still defends it.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.