Conservative MP Wendy Morton says Universal Credit ‘helps’ people into work and criticises opposition MPs for ‘scaremongering.’ However, the new benefit has pushed people into debt and rent arrears, with some forced to rely on food banks to survive. It’s difficult to see precisely how a social security benefit that creates those circumstances could possibly help people into work.
The introduction of Universal Credit was aimed at ‘incentivising’ people into work and to work longer hours, by ensuring that for those needing to claim welfare support, the experience was as uncomfortable as possible. Under the Conservatives, social security has been transformed into a system that metes out discipline, coercing citizens into compliance with state-defined economic outcomes, rather than serving as a national insurance-funded provision to meet people’s basic necessities, should they need it – which was the original intention behind the welfare state.
The introduction of ordeals and harsh conditionality in the process of welfare administration was designed to ensure that no-one felt secure or ‘entitled’ to claim support. The Conservatives believe provision for meeting people’s basic survival needs when they experience financial disadvantage somehow produces ‘perverse incentives’ that make being out of work a more favourable option than looking for work.
However, much research – both historic and recent – has indicated that unless people are secure in being able to meet their basic needs – which requires having sufficient resources to cover the cost of fundamental necessities such as food, fuel and shelter consistently – then it is highly unlikely they will be able to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs, including looking for work. In short, absolute poverty limits human potential. It’s therefore simply not possible to punish people out of being poor. The problem of poverty is structural and material, it doesn’t arise because of some kind of moral, character or behavioural deficit on the part of poor people.
We learned this through the consequences of the punitive 1834 Poor Law, the research of Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and the later work of Peter Townsend. Rowntree’s discovery was that poverty arises as the result of low wages, which went against the traditionally held view that poor people were somehow responsible for their own circumstances. The Conservatives view is a regressive one.
The Government has claimed that disciplinary sanctions are a method of enforcing “cultural and behavioural change” of people claiming both in-work and out-of-work social security. This of course assumes that people’s behaviours are a problem in the first place.
Sanctions don’t address the decision-making of employers – who are ultimately responsible for establishing rates of pay and the hours of work for employees – nor do they address exploitation or structural problems, such as political decision-making that results in inequality, poverty, reduced access to opportunity and resources and a deregulated labour market that creates constraints for those looking for work.
Sanctions are one of the government’s draconian methods of ‘making work pay’. This is what Conservatives like Morton mean by ‘helping people into work. She means that people are being systematically punished into increasing their economic productivity, regardless of whether that actually ‘pays’ for them and alleviates poverty. It means that the Government has abdicated responsibility for the consequences of its own policy and decision-making regarding the UK’s socioeconomic organisation, choosing instead to scapegoat the casualties of those policies and decisions.
Furthermore, contrary to the government’s claims, international research has shown that generous welfare provision actually increases the likelihood that people will have a stronger work ethic and be much more willing and able to look for work.
The Institute for Fiscal Study (IFS) carried out an independent study of Universal Credit and have estimated that the government’s social security reform will cut welfare spending by £2.7bn a year, and will hit working people on low incomes particularly hard. Single parents who work and two-parent households where both work are most likely to lose out, the study found.
Robert Joyce, an associate director at the IFS and one of the report’s authors, said the long-run effect of the introduction of universal credit would be “to reduce benefits for working families on average – a reversal of the original [stated] intention”.
The Department for Work and Pensions claimed that Universal Credit was “transforming lives across the country, with claimants moving into work significantly faster and earning more than under the old system”. Universal credit would be in all jobcentres by the spring and once fully rolled out it would generate £6.7bn in economic benefit every year.”
It’s certainly changing lives. But not in the way it’s claimed to.
The government have never hidden the fact that they aim to make big savings through their systematic welfare ‘reforms’ (a word that has become a Conservative euphemism for cuts).
The road to tyranny
Last month, the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, was accused by senior Conservatives MPs of paving the way for tyranny, after the government whipped its MPs to abstain on a Labour motion on universal credit. Labour’s motion passed unanimously despite the concerns of several Conservative rebels, but some Tory MPs were infuriated at being urged by their own party to ignore it.
Leadsom faced criticism from some Conservative MPs because she said the government was not bound by the resolution, which called for the rollout of the controversial welfare changes to be paused.
Valerie Vaz, the shadow leader of the house, pressed Leadsom on the government’s response. She said: “This is where we make the law. This is not a school debating chamber. This is a disorganised government, disrespectful to the house.”
“I know the government didn’t want to hear about people in rent arrears struggling to feed their families when they’re in work, but that’s the reality when government policy is failing.”
Conservative MP Heidi Allen broke down in the House of Commons during the emotional Labour-led debate on Universal Credit on Tuesday, where the government conceded it would finally release the ‘confidential’ reports into the impact of the welfare reform’s rollout.
The debate came as the government pledged it will make universal credit reports from between 2012 and 2015 available to the select committee in a concession to Labour, but work and pensions secretary David Gauke said they should not be made public. A ruling in August was made by the information commissioner that five of the government’s reports should be released to campaigners because their publication would be in the public interest.
The Government have said they would continue to challenge the reports being released to the public, even though the reports will be given to the committee, after Labour used a parliamentary device called a ‘humble address’ to the Queen, requesting ministers release project assessment reviews conducted into the welfare reform.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has already said the papers should be published publicly and in full.
Mind you, we are still waiting for the public release of the Health and Social Care risk register, and have been since 2012.
Perish the thought that the Government should value democratic transparency and accountability. Or that it should face the consequences of its own policies and decision-making.
Field had intervened to give Allen a chance to compose herself, saying: “I’m just amazed for the first time I’ve been able to report those events publicly without weeping.
“I’m so affected by them, I’m affected as she is. That’s the debate we’re really having – how do we represent here the desperateness of many of our constituents when many of us feel we can’t offer them hope,” he said.
Earlier Field had said, remarkably, that his constituents were being hit by the cumulative impact of reforms under both Labour and Conservative governments.
He said: “On my last surgery Friday, for the first time ever a gentleman rose after we had spoken, I had tried to persuade him not to commit suicide, such was the desperateness that he saw the future for himself, and I realised the hand that shook my hand was wet. He’d been crying. And the hand that shook my hand was the hand that wiped away those tears.”
Field also recounted how a charity in his constituency had helped a family who brought in a child that was “crying with hunger”.
The family were so short of money that they had been invited to a funeral by their neighbours so that they could finish the food left by other guests.
Field said: “This is the background of growing destitution that I see in my constituency and against which we have to judge Universal Credit and the debate we’re having today.”
Labour and some Conservative MPs have repeatedly voiced concern about the long wait faced by fresh claimants to be paid benefits once they apply for universal credit, originally six weeks but reduced to five in last month’s budget.
The concerns about Universal Credit arose because of the harrowing accounts of experiences that MPs have heard directly from their constituents. Charities have also fedback to MPs about the distress and hardship they have witnessed from people going through the system. For example, the Trussell Trust, a charity which provides food banks, said demand had risen in areas where Universal Credit was introduced.
It said at the House of Commons inquiry into Universal Credit: “In 2016-17 food banks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout saw a 16.85% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64%.”
Newcastle Council have also said during the House of Commons inquiry: “We think that Universal Credit can place some vulnerable residents at risk of destitution and homelessness.” And the body which manages Newcastle’s council houses said Universal Credit claimants were more than £1 million in arrears on their rent.
Liverpool City Council reported “an increasing number of citizens contacting the service for assistance through local welfare provision, to provide funds for food and other essentials”.
The council, already dealing with funding cuts, said it was “encountering significant financial losses” because it was having to provide temporary accommodation for people who had been made homeless.
The debate on Tuesday happened because some citizens are experiencing extreme distress and hardship and have reported their circumstances to their MPs. This is, after all, how a democracy works. MPs represent their constituents.
Now more than one Conservative MP has dismissed those citizens’ accounts as ‘scaremongering,’ which is an attempt to deny that those experiences are true, while also denying culpability.
Morton (Conservative MP for Aldridge Brownhills) said Universal Credit, which ‘replaces’ a range of existing benefits including Housing Benefit, was ‘helping’ people find work. However, Universal Credit doesn’t entirely replace the amount that the range of benefits provided to meet people’s basic needs.
Speaking in the Commons debate about Universal Credit, she said: “It is this Government who are helping people, which is why I am disappointed to have sat through a lot of this debate and heard scaremongering stories from Opposition Members.
I flinch when I hear the government say they are going to ‘help’ people, especially when that ‘help’ is directed at marginalised social groups. Who among us really needs that draconian and Dickensian brand of help?
The Conservatives seem to think that their strictly class-based and ‘helpful’ punishment is somehow in people’s’ best interests. They claim with a straight face that the system of punishing sanctions being inflicted on the poorest citizens is ‘fair’. There isn’t a system in place that punishes people fairly who hoard their wealth offshore, however, causing such damage to the economy that the Government say they were somehow forced to impose austerity on the poorest citizens so the nation could ‘live within its means’. Well, some of the nation. For many don’t have the means to live, now.
It’s not poor people who need to change their behaviours. It is a Government that is happy to preside over growing inequality, increasing absolute poverty and social injustice. It is those very wealthy people who feel they are not obliged to contribute to a society that they have taken so much from.
The Department for Work and Pensions has said no claimant needed to wait that long without funds, saying emergency payments to cover the period can be requested and received within three days and paid back over 12 months.
Speaking in the debate, Gauke also accused Labour politicians and the media of ‘scaremongering’, which he said was leading families to believe they had no way of accessing help.
However, they don’t have any way of accessing help.
Gauke spoke the language of despots fluently when he said that he was granting the request on an ‘exceptional basis’ and said the reports would only give a partial picture of the policy’s impact, given how it had subsequently ‘been revised.’ He also said he would consider redacting certain information, such as that which is ‘commercially sensitive’, while the documents were being handed over in exceptional circumstances and did not ‘set a precedent.’
Field was clearly uneasy about the condition that his committee keep the reports confidential, and said that he would seek guidance from Commons Speaker John Bercow about “what sense of secrecy or of honour binds us” when the committee finally do get the documents.