Tories and Labour refuse to bury disastrous Universal Credit

Protest against cuts to disability benefits

In early July, Angus Housing Association began legal eviction proceedings against Ms X – a vulnerable woman living in sheltered accommodation owned by the Association in Dundee. Ms X had fallen, inexplicably, more than £1,000 into rent arrears despite arranging for her Housing Benefit (HB) to be paid directly to her landlord. Only after the beginning of proceedings, doubtless deeply distressing for her, did it turn out that DWP officials had been paying her rent directly to Angus City Council – an unrelated entity some 18 miles north of Ms X’s home. Speaking to the Dundee Courier (14 July 2018), Angus Housing Association’s Director Bruce Forbes said he was aware of ‘numerous examples of tenants’ housing costs being sent to the wrong landlord, despite the DWP being given email verification’ by his organisation.

Ms X’s case is just one of thousands of examples of claimants being let down or pushed into hardship through Universal Credit’s (UC’s) roll out. The benefit, which combines six of the most commonly claimed benefits into a single, centrally-administered payment, has been roundly condemned for the inefficiencies and arbitrary cruelties of its application and payment system. By taking the administration of HB payment away from local councils, and making people reapply for benefits they are already getting, claimants are being forced to go for weeks at a time with no income at all. The number of people who have waited more than two months for any kind of payment after applying for UC has risen sharply to over 4,000. UC claimants hold 25% of all rent arrears in England and Wales, despite making up only 4% of households, and having an average arrears of nearly £200 more than their non-claimant counterparts (Local Government Chronicle 11 July 2018).

Alongside this increased risk of homelessness, hunger and vulnerability abound in the areas where UC has been rolled out. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest foodbank provider, reports a rise of 52% in foodbank use in areas where UC has been implemented – almost three times as high as the rise in areas under the old benefits system – while 57% of claimants it polled for its most recent research  reported a deterioration in their mental or physical health since they moved to UC.

Victims of domestic violence have been particularly hard hit. While the government has tried to keep administrative costs down by paying benefits per household, evidence has emerged that this allows abusive partners to seize their victims’ benefits income and increase their level of control over them. As Dr Marilyn Howard, a financial abuse expert at the University of Bristol, and frontline support staff reported to the Work and Pensions Select Committee in April, this has not only put more victims at greater risk but has forced domestic and sexual violence workers to spend more of their time sorting out their clients’ benefits, and less time on finding them suitable accommodation and providing counselling or support services (The Guardian 18 April 2018).

On 21 June, Work and Pensions Minister Esther McVey informed Parliament that a report on UC by the National Audit Office (NAO, an independent public spending watchdog) recommended a ‘speed up’ of UC rollout, and that it had concluded that UC was successful at getting people into work. This was a lie: the report in question actually contained the exact opposite of both statements – recommending an indefinite pause to UC implementation, and concluding that there is ‘no evidence’ that UC was increasing returns to work. On 2 July, when questioned in Parliament on passages in the report that were critical of UC, McVey claimed that these criticisms ignored measures put in place recently by the DWP – despite her own staff confirming a few days before the report’s publication that it was factually accurate. Shortly afterwards, the head of the NAO, Sir Amyas Morse, published an open letter criticising McVey for misleading Parliament about his organisation’s views. Calls for McVey’s resignation have so far been ignored.

McVey has a record of implementing devastating cuts to disability benefits and defending the child benefit ‘rape clause’ (where victims of sexual violence are forced to disclose details of their ordeal in order to qualify). But what of the records of the people calling for her resignation? And what would they replace UC with? One prominent critic of McVey is the Labour MP Frank Field who accused her of ‘mega-Trumpisms’ in her representation of the NAO findings. Field, himself, sees the solution to the welfare crisis in the complete abolition of the welfare state, and its replacement with giant mutual funds in a scheme described as part German-style social insurance, part John Lewis share issue (The Guardian 23 October 2013). Another Labour critic, Liam Byrne, berated McVey in Parliament over the suffering of his own Birmingham constituents, but himself broke ranks to support the government’s workfare policies when he was Shadow Work and Pensions Minister in 2013. For Byrne, it seems that delayed payments are unacceptable, but unpaid forced labour is not.

Newer Labour MPs may lack the anti-claimant, pro-austerity records of Field and Byrne, but they are all pledged by Labour’s manifesto to a mere ‘pause and fix’ of UC. This is a key component of Labour’s commitment to austerity, which is no secret. If elected they will implement £7bn, or 80%, of planned Tory welfare cuts (Resolution Foundation 21 May 2017). UC is designed to cut the UK’s benefits bill, and it is designed to do so by extending the system of sanctions to in-work benefit claimants; by penalising workers who miss appointments with their Job Centre; and by reducing payments to precarious workers who go over or under their usual hours. Labour may not support the chaos of the rollout of UC, but it does support its essence: a progressive assault on the living standards of the working class.

Luke Meehan

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 265 August/September 2018


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