When Universal Credit was announced, Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary at the time, said it was intended to bring “fairness and simplicity” to the welfare system. This morning, on the BBC’s Today Programme, the newly appointed secretary for work and pensions, Amber Rudd, stated that Universal Credit is “revolutionary” in the way it treats benefits claimants and a “tremendous force for good”. As the government plans to roll out Universal Credit more widely in 2019, now seems the right time to look at just how fair, simple and good Universal Credit has really been, so far, to those who rely on it.
Yesterday, for example, an anonymous claimant said that the stress Universal Credit was putting her under meant that she’d contemplated killing herself and her seven-year-old son. After moving to Manchester to escape an abusive relationship, the anonymous woman struggled to find a job that worked with her son’s school hours and so had to rely on Universal Credit. She receives £1,000 a month, £850 of which immediately goes on rent, and so only has £150 a month to pay all her other bills and feed herself and her son. She explained how she goes without food during the day so that she can afford to pay for evening meals, relies on food banks and worries about how she will be able to afford to heat their home, now the weather has become suddenly colder.
On The Today Programme, Rudd admitted that there had been problems with Universal Credit, but argued that, mainly, claimants would be “substantially better off” under it. Better off, perhaps, like the women who say that they are being forced into sex work because they’re so desperate for money, with one woman telling the BBC that she had to sleep with a man for a quick £30 during an eight-week wait to get a payment. Better off, perhaps, like the man who said he was living on pasta with gravy due to an administrative error. Or better off like the women who Women’s Aid are worried about, who will be financially controlled by abusive partners because of the way Universal Credit payments are received.
The people who are “better off” with Universal Credit seem increasingly hard to find. This week, a report from Gateshead Council has suggested that, rather than making people better off, Universal Credit is actively creating poverty. The report also found serious issues with the mental health of those relying on Universal Credit; the lead researcher, Mandy Cheetham, was so concerned about the suicidal comments made by some of the participants that she took a suicide-prevention course halfway through the study.
Things have become so bad that the United Nations has gotten involved. Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, stated that Universal Credit has “plunged people into misery and despair”. Alston found that roughly 14 million people in the UK are living in poverty, with 1.5 million classed as destitute, and that, although the introduction of Universal Credit has caused extreme hardship, the government could easily reverse it.
Will they? Probably not. On BBC Radio 4, Rudd dismissed Universal Credit issues so far as mere “teething problems”, and, although she said she’d look into the UN report, she thought Alston had been “very political” and resented the apparent motives attributed to the government, as they were trying “to be constructive, to be helpful, to be efficient and to be compassionate”.
But, while Rudd sulks over the negative tone of a report that explains that 1.5 million people in the 28th richest country in the world are destitute, others are getting ready. Sufra NW London, in Brent, a food bank supported by Islamic Relief UK, is stockpiling food in preparation for Universal Credit to hit. “Research has shown that in other boroughs that have rolled out Universal Credit, there has been a 52% increase in food banks, so we are getting prepared and are stockpiling as much food as we can,” said Mohammed Mamdani, director of Sufra NW London. “People who come to our food bank are living hand-to-mouth and being forced to wait for benefit payments could be devastating for them.”
“Fair.” “Simple.” “Revolutionary.” “A tremendous force for good,” the government said of this policy. But there is nothing good about taking the most vulnerable people in our country and putting them in a situation where they have to rely on charities and food banks in order to keep themselves and their families alive. If this government really wanted to do something that’s good, then it would admit that Universal Credit isn’t working and scrap it. Perhaps working with the people on the front line and the experts, in order to find a benefits system that helps, rather than hurts, might be a better idea than rigidly sticking to something in order to save face. But, then again, that really would be revolutionary.