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Welfare revolt in Corbyn Country: Why Islington voted to scrap Universal Credit

The second council in the country passes a motion to end and replace the new welfare system.

On 6 December 2018, Islington Council voted unanimously to scrap Universal Credit. The north London borough, where 70 people are switching to the new welfare system every day, ruled that it has “no confidence” in Universal Credit and is urging the Prime Minister to replace it with a social security system that “supports people and ensures that nobody is worse off, rather than driving them into poverty”.

While other councils, such as Oxford, Southwark and Liverpool, have voted to pause the roll-out of Universal Credit in order to fix the system notoriously beset with problems, they have stopped short of calling for the policy to end altogether.

The east London borough of Tower Hamlets is the only other council in the country to have voted to scrap Universal Credit – which it did by a vote of all but two councillors – on 21 November, resolving to “call on the government to stop the rollout completely and deliver a genuinely comprehensive system in which nobody will be worse off”.

This reflects the change in Labour party policy towards Universal Credit – at first pushing for a pause to fix the system, and more recently urging the government to “stop the rollout” and committing to a “root-and-branch review of the social security system”.

Full rollout in Islington, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is MP for the constituency of Islington North, began on 20 June 2018. Around 4,000 residents are already on Universal Credit, and counting. So far, according to the council, 75 per cent of these claimants are in rent arrears, and 12 per cent of their claims are not being processed within the five-week delay built into the system. Average rent arrears for council tenants already on Universal Credit are nearly seven times that of those on the old housing benefit.

Since June, food bank use in Islington has almost quadrupled – from 46 referrals in June to 167 in October. The council attributes this spike to the Universal Credit rollout.

Although not directly linked to the benefit change, rough sleeping has also spiked in the borough. A street homelessness count last week found 43 people sleeping rough, compared with 27 this time last year.

As representatives of the 24th most deprived borough in the country, Islington councillors are concerned that if Universal Credit isn’t stopped soon, it could mean more poverty for their residents, with 21,000 set to be moved onto the benefit overall.

“We’re talking about significant numbers of our residents,” says Andy Hull, Labour councillor for Highbury West and executive member for finance. “Our experience in the last few months is that it’s plunging them into poverty or if they’re already there, plunging them deeper into it. So we felt the need to speak out.”

From meetings with local charities, Hull says he’s learned that people are “indebted, destitute and desperate as a result of Universal Credit” – with the local Citizens Advice Bureau reporting a 20 per cent increase in people with debt problems since June.

The council calculates that around 10,000 households will end up worse off under this system, by an average of £500 a year.

And some in Islington are even worse off than that already. Beth*, a 25-year-old mental health support worker and mother-of-two, who has lived in Islington for nine years, tells me she is £1,000 out of pocket because of delayed childcare payments to the nursery her two children, aged four and five, attend.

She used to receive child tax credits, which were paid directly – but when she switched to Universal Credit upon getting a new job, she was advised to use an advanced loan to pay childcare fees, and she’d then be reimbursed by the Department for Work & Pensions. She’s been waiting nearly three months for that payment.

Struggling to pay gas and electricity bills, Beth has had to use a foodbank for the first time in her life.

“It’s severely impacted my life, day-to-day living is more difficult, day-to-day shopping and paying bills that are necessary – it’s been tough,” she says. “With Christmas coming up, I’ve had to hold back on presents for family, decorations at home, which has affected the kids as well – we’re not really feeling the Christmas spirit.”

Because she’s behind on payments, the nursery has sent her a letter threatening to remove her children. She may have to quit her job to look after them. “The whole point of this initiative is to keep people, single parents, and what have you, people usually on benefits, in work. And because of these delays, I’m now thinking, am I going to have to come out of work?”

A resident of over 25 years I speak to, Anna*, 59, had to claim Universal Credit in early September after being made redundant from her teaching job at the primary school where she’d worked for 17 years. She has a 19-year-old daughter.

Three years ago, her health began to deteriorate and a bladder and womb operation meant she had to take time off to recover, which eventually led to losing her job.

Having worked and paid tax in the UK for over 30 years and never before claimed benefits, she was initially rejected for failing a “habitual residency test” – because she’d visited her sister abroad for six weeks over the summer holiday.

She has since reapplied for Universal Credit and found out recently she has been accepted, but hasn’t received any income for nearly four months now.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m still waiting. I couldn’t believe it. After 17 years in an official, government job. It’s like you’re worthless. I’m not well. I have to have heating and all that,” she tells me.

“This four months taken from my life is like ten years, I can’t tell you. I lost my self-confidence, I lost my health, I lost everything I believe now, I can’t trust anyone anywhere. I’m not good enough to get benefits.”

Anna’s ordeal has affected her mental health, and she sees a therapist. “I’m scared of looking at official papers, my hands start shaking, I cry and I can’t help it. I was crying each time I went there [to the Jobcentre to fill in the forms].”

Residents like Beth and Anna, and the tens of thousands like them due to lose out from Universal Credit in Islington, will need more than a council motion to improve their lives.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not naive and we don’t think a letter from Islington Council to the Conservative Prime Minister’s going to change policy overnight,” Councillor Hull admits. “But we have some experience in Islington Labour of spearheading campaigns that have landed blows on the government and indeed changed policy.”

An example he gives is Islington Council’s “Keep the Safety Net” campaign in 2015/15 against the government cutting £172m of local welfare provision. Via a judicial review of the government’s policy, the council saved £74m of the funding.

Hull and his fellow councillors, all of whom but one are Labour (the other is from the Green Party), hope other councils will follow in voting to scrap Universal Credit and writing to the Prime Minister. The council also has the support of local MPs – Corbyn’s position being of most significance, as Labour’s vision for a new social security system has yet to be fleshed out.

“We’re not just politicking or point-scoring,” says Hull. “We’re doing this because real people, our neighbours, are getting screwed by this policy.”

*Names have been changed on request.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.