Universal credit was originally conceived as a positive facet of the otherwise draconian Tory welfare “reforms.” Designed to simplify the benefit system, introducing more flexibilty, and to ensure that benefit claimants were “always better off in work” – by removing “disincentives” to employment.
Of course, in tandem to this are the much more punitive, coercive and cost-cutting policies – cuts to disability benefits, the introduction of an overall benefit cap and the rapidly increasing use of sanctions, as a key part of a stringent conditionality regime. Such policies are perverse, given the social reasons why the welfare state evolved originally.
You have to wonder how the Conservatives have avoided the criticism levelled at the Thatcher government of the 1980s: that it sacrificed and condemned millions to waste away and mortify on benefits as a “price worth paying” for economic recovery. After all, Cameron’s government are still sacrificing those with the least, no matter how much he enlists the support of the media in constructing folk devils to divert public attention, to abdicate state responsibility, and by using the ensuing moral panic to justify that abdication and the punitive welfare “reforms.”
Universal Credit (UC) was hailed as the government’s flagship welfare “reform” that aims to integrate six separate benefits. To hear Iain Duncan Smith speak, Universal Credit holds some kind of mystical power that will address all manner of social problems from unemployment and the “undesirable” attitudes of benefit claimants to child poverty.
Critics, especially in the media, tend to invoke the dismal consequences of IT contracting and the stunted progress of the policy’s roll-out.
This said, the Department of Work and Pensions are not well known for their cooperation and forthcoming when it comes to sharing pertinent information. But all of this has allowed the continuation of a dangerous myth: that the problems facing UC are all about delivery, rather than design.
It also means that UC becomes an impossible project to manage well. It seems that none of the programme leaders can take big problems to Iain Duncan Smith because he is in desperate denial that big problems can exist. He has clearly invested much ego equity in this vanity project.
The Mirror report that Universal Credit staff are to strike in protest against oppressive culture under the Tory welfare reforms. However, the focus of contention is mostly on the delivery and not the design of the policy.
Some 1,500 Universal Credit workers are complaining of staff shortages, poor training and money squandered on IT that wasn’t used. They claim they’re being given unrealistic targets as the government’s flagship reform is rolled out across Britain – over its original deadline and budget.
The cost of Universal Credit has soared to almost £16bn and it will now take at least 5 years to implement, according to a damning watchdog report last month, from The Major Projects Authority (MPA).
The scheme, championed by Duncan Smith with David Cameron’s full support, received royal assent in 2012 with initial plans for a full roll-out by the 2015 general election.
A pilot scheme has been introduced in selected areas, but only 65,000 people in the UK are currently claiming universal credit, according to government data.
Huge costs include £40m which was spent on computer code which then wasn’t used – with officials admitting in 2013 it would end up having no value.
And a Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) survey earlier this year found 90% of staff still had concerns the IT system wouldn’t be adequate.
Next week’s walkout will be followed by an overtime ban running until August 18.
The union says that the Department for Work and Pensions isn’t giving the scheme enough resources and has performed a “massive scaling back” of flexible working hours.
General secretary Mark Serwotka said:
“The introduction of universal credit has been a textbook example of how not to reform essential public services.
The DWP’s handling of every aspect of it has been disastrous.”
But my own concerns extend well beyond mere financial costs and implementation issues.
One undercover reporter in the Bolton call centre, where workers are now going on strike next week, said he was told not to mention an emergency fund unless callers asked about it.
“Worryingly, the undercover journalist claimed he was told his call centre was “like Fight Club.” A trainer was recorded telling him: “It’s a bit like Fight Club – we don’t discuss what happens in Fight Club.
So you don’t talk about flexible support fund either.”
This kind of repressive withholding of information about support for claimants now permeates job centres, along with an oppressive culture of secrecy imposed on staff more generally.
The oppressive welfare “reforms” have a profoundly negative impact on those people who the policies are aimed at. Job Centre Plus’s predominant focus is now on compliance monitoring with less attention given to meaningful and in-depth employment advice and support for claimants.
Perhaps the major contributing factor to an increase in workplace oppression is the collective behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against social groups, such as disabled and unemployed people, with a complicit media amplifying these prejudices. Tory policies embed a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups.
This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the Department of Work and Pensions and job centres are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group.
As figures of authority and role models, their behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, the prime minister sneers at rationality and does not engage in a democratic dialogue, instead he employs the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This in turn gives government departments and indeed wider society permission and approval to do the same.
Much government policy aimed at marginalised groups is about imposing conformity whilst enforcing the systematic removal of publicly funded state support.
The set of underpinning assumptions that Universal credit is founded on are wrong. The New Right have formulated individualistic psychopolicy interventions aimed at the most excluded social groups. These coercive and punitive policies are dressed up and paraded in a populist, pseudo-language of psychology, poorly defined and flawed concepts such as “lack of motivation” and “psychological resistance to work” are being used by politicians and job centre staff to allocate claimants to more or less arduous workfare regimes, for example.
Such policies are not aimed at supporting people: instead they act upon people, objectifying and dehumanising them. And instructing them how to be.
Welfare has been redefined: it is pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social well-being.
For example, Jobcentre “nudge” posters, designed by the Government Behavioural Insights Team are used to “encourage” claimants to expand the area of job search to increase their chances of finding work. The posters are designed “to challenge claimant attitudes that had been identified as barriers to work.”Aimed at Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, the posters used the idea of “loss aversion” (an economics and decision theory which, in basic terms, claims that disincentives are more effective than incentives in modifying behaviours,) by highlighting the potential job opportunities that claimants might miss out on by not widening their job search area. Of course the most powerful application of loss aversion theory is in benefit sanctions for non-compliance.
And to meet Jobcentre targets.
The Behavioural Insights Team have also prompted the use of “altercasting” (a technique of persuasion, aimed at manipulating identity, (to be assumed by other(s) with whom one interacts with, which is “congruent with one’s own goals”) to establish a social dynamic based on the authority of Jobcentre staff and an obedient counter-role of claimants.
All of the Tory psychopolicies are aimed at compliance, ultimately. Altercasting is a method of persuading people by forcing them into a social role, so that they will be inclined to behave according to that role.
It’s worth considering that the Authority-Agent altercast was also used by Stanley Milgram in 1974 in an experiment to prompt people to give electric shocks (increasing in potency) to other people (in a fake learning experiment that was really about social obedience) under orders of the authoritative experimenter. The participants were actually administering fake shocks to acting confederates, but they were unaware of this deception. 65% of the participants were compliant in administering what they took to be near-lethal shocks.
The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state. Such stigmatising – by using negative affiliation and outgrouping rhetoric – is another type of altercasting. It serves to stabilise benign conceptions of the “authority”, to structure social threat perceptions of others and to legitimate what are ultimately cruel and punitive policies.
But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this psychocratic government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems that are caused by government decisions.
In the universal credit white paper (pdf), the government argued:
“Welfare dependency has become a significant problem in Britain with a huge social and economic cost.” The new benefit will be “leaner” and “firmer”.
The UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up in homes where no one works and this pattern repeats itself through the generations. Less than 60% of lone parents in the UK are in employment, compared to 70% or more in France, Germany and the Netherlands … Universal credit will start to change this. It will reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study that debunked the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012. I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive positivist/behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune.
Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.
Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.
However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.
And then there is the fact that in-work poverty is rising. Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, why have those “personal failings” only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years?
The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions, but it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by sincerely addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.
Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.
Here are some further problems with the design of Universal Credit:
• Monthly payments
The government thinks this will help promote good budgeting and more closely replicate monthly salary payments. Campaigners are worried that the shift from weekly and fortnightly payments to this new regime may push claimants recipients into debt. The Social Market Foundation says: “Most households in our sample opposed the idea of a monthly payment. This was the case for the majority of households, who tended to budget on a daily, weekly or fortnightly cycle.”
One of the most controversial aspects of Universal Credit is the introduction of a new seven-day waiting period before an individual qualifies for benefit. What is more, people on Universal Credit will have to endure a wait of one calendar month whilst their entitlement is calculated, and then a further seven-day wait for payment into their account, which will produce a total wait of at least five weeks before people already in hardship receive any money.
• Benefit payments will go directly to one member of a couple
In cases of domestic abuse and violence, this could give perpetrators command of household income, further enabling them to control and isolate their partners. As Sandra Horley from Refuge points out:
“The housing benefit on which refuges depend is the lifeblood of the national network of services that keep women and children safe. But this vital source of income is now at risk. Many of our refuges do not meet the official definition of “supported exempt accommodation”, which means that a lot of the women we support will fall foul of the benefit cap.
This will be particularly damaging for women who pay two rents – one for the refuge they are living in temporarily, and the other for the home they have fled. Women who move on from refuges and resettle in areas of high rent may also be plunged into debt as a result of the cap. Those who accumulate rent arrears may face eviction and be left with an impossible dilemma either to sleep rough or return to their violent partner.”
• Direct payments
The prospect of stopping housing benefit payments to landlords and directly paying the claimant is causing a lot of unease. The National Housing Federation says the shift from paying landlords to paying claimants direct for the housing benefit element could trigger unprecedented levels of arrears and increased rent collection costs.
“Of all the reforms, the introduction of direct payments to tenants is expected to have the biggest impact – more than 80% of housing associations say it will affect their organisations a great deal or a fair amount,” an NHF report warns. “84% of associations believe that rent arrears will increase as a direct result of welfare changes. The average increase expected is 51%, which, if replicated across the sector, would mean an additional £245m of arrears.”
The government has said that “vulnerable” tenants may be excluded (pdf) and has devised an “automatic switchback mechanism” – paying rent to the landlord when a tenant’s arrears hit a threshold level – but there are currently very few details of what constitutes a vulnerable tenant.
There are concerns that more people could be evicted as a result. The BBC obtained figures that showed when the direct payments were piloted in six areas of the country there was a big rise in rent arrears as some tenants failed to pass that money on, with arrears rising from about 2% to 11%.
• Conditionality and sanctions
“Entitlement to UC is subject to a strict regime of ‘personalised’ conditionality (ie mandatory activity to prepare for and obtain work), backed by tough benefit sanctions (ie loss of benefit) for non-compliance,” the government says.
The Child Poverty Action Group warns: “The need for more conditionality comes across as a moral crusade, rather than being evidence based … There are concerns that some vulnerable claimants could face repeated sanctions for failing to comply with the demands of the system and that personal advisers and the Work Programme (within a culture of ‘payment by results’) will have too much power and discretion to impose unreasonable requirements on claimants.”
The charity warns in a UC training document: “Sanctions, in the form of loss of benefit, are designed to incentivise claimants to meet their work-related requirements and punish them for unreasonable failures. The regime is harsh, and there is concern that some claimants who repeatedly fail to comply with the system could be sanctioned and forced to survive on below subsistence income for long periods. This could include vulnerable claimants with mental health or social functioning problems, who find it difficult to comply with directions.”
A high level sanction can be imposed if, for example, a claimant fails for no good reason to take up an offer of paid work. The higher level sanction is the loss of the standard allowance of 91 days for a first failure, 182 days for a second higher level sanction within a year, and 1,095 days (three years) for another failure within a further year (disregarding “pre-claim” failures).
Hardship payments will be available of 60% of the sanctioned amount for those who cannot meet their “immediate and most basic and essential needs for accommodation, heating, food and hygiene”.
• Lone parents could lose out
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) calculates that “because of the way the parameters of universal credit have been chosen, couples, and particularly those with children, look set to gain by more, on average, than single-adult families, particularly lone parents, who will lose on average according to our analysis”.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone