At last, it feels like the tide is turning on universal credit
October 13, 2018
Labour has been demanding the government halt the rollout of universal credit for months. And in the last few days, two former prime ministers – from different sides of the political spectrum – have condemned the government’s failure to protect welfare claimants. On Thursday, the Cabinet member responsible for this iniquitous Tory scheme, Esther McVey,…
Labour has been demanding the government halt the rollout of universal credit for months. And in the last few days,two formerprime ministers– from different sides of the political spectrum – have condemned the government’s failure to protect welfare claimants. On Thursday, the Cabinet member responsible for this iniquitous Tory scheme, Esther McVey, directly contradicted Theresa May by admitting live on TV that some peoplewill be worse offunder universal credit. A Tory backbencher followed byattacking his own government’sprogramme.
It feels like the tide is turning.
If you’re a user of this country’s underfunded welfare system, then you’ve probably been desperate for change for a long time. TheConservatives saythey have “redesigned the welfare system to make it fit for the 21st century”. But their flagship welfare reform programme has put claimants in rent arrears; it means people may be unable to afford their gas or electricity bill; it may force them to go to a food bank for the first time.
That’s the true story of universal credit.
The scheme could hardly have a worse reputation, beset as it has been by delays, resets and incompetence. However, theConservativesare about to embark on a new phase of the programme that is fraught with risk and which will make things a whole lot worse.
So-called managed migration will take nearly 3 million people claiming “old-style” benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance and tax credits, and “migrate” them on to universal credit.
But it looks like it will be anything but “managed”.
The government will be sending millions of people letters telling them that their existing benefits are coming to an end, and that they will have a month to claim universal credit.
If they do not claim in time, some could lose their entire income overnight. This could happen for lots of reasons – for example, if their letter gets lost in the post, if they do not understand the instructions, or if they are not able to gather their documents in time.
How often have you forgotten or ignored an envelope on the mat? It’s easy to do, especially if you’re already finding life stressful and difficult. But as a consequence of doing just that, some people may only find out that they need to make a claim for universal credit once their existing benefits stop and their money is cut off. Imagine the appalling impact that could have on a family. It’s deeply unjust that, for some households, this will mean that vital income has been cut off and they cannot pay their rent or food bills.
Many people affected by this are in jobs and claim working tax credits. For many parents juggling one or two jobs, and childcare as well, it can be really hard to find the time at the end of the day to fill in a complex form.Nearly halfof people need help to complete their universal credit claim: that’s how difficult it is to fill in.
Most will have no idea that the deadline for a claim can be extended unless they receive expert advice, but in any case advice agencies are stretched to the limit as a result of government cuts. Often it can take more than a month to get to see someone.
Losing your entire income overnight is a terrifying thought for anybody. But it is even worse if you have an illness or a disability. No income may mean that you cannot eat properly, or that you can’t store your medication because you can’t pay to keep the electricity on and your fridge working.More than one in threepeople who will be affected claim employment and support allowance, meaning they are too ill or disabled to seek work. It will be particularly hard for those people to switch from one system to another in a short period of time – and the punishment that this government will impose on them if they fail to do so will be particularly cruel.
There is a real danger that many people will fall out of the social security system altogether because they are unable to make a claim at all. People with a learning disability, low literacy levels or poor IT skills are particularly at risk. Again, imagine the impact on a vulnerable person of losing the income that they need.
Ministers must stop and listen to the people who are going to be hit by these changes. They must listen to the 80 disability organisations that are warning that these plans will endanger some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They must listen to organisations such as Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group and the mayor of London, who are all opposing the plans. And they must listen to the National Audit Office,which has saidthat the Department for Work and Pensions should not proceed unless it is clear that universal credit can cope with business-as-usual operations.
The government must stop the rollout of universal credit. Failure to do so risks human catastrophe.
•Margaret Greenwood is MP for Wirral West and Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary
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