Universal Credit - what an absolute shambles. Why is it that something that sounds like a good idea works out so bad and leaves the most needy in society out of pocket?
Universal Credit, a scheme whereby six means tested benefits and tax credits are rolled into one single payment has been mooted for a number of years but has never come to fruition until Ian Duncan Smith took it on as his personal crusade to streamline the benefits system and save the government shedloads of money in the process.
It’s taken seven years for UC to reach where we are today with just over a tenth of the seven million families currently enrolled. Best estimates are that it will take a further five until the process is complete. This is the mother of all IT projects and probably unworkable in its current form.
In principle it’s hard not to think that UC isn’t a bad idea but we’ve heard horror story after horror story over the way claimants have been treated. It started with the minimum waiting periods of six weeks to process and receive payments, but in many cases taking far longer, some in excess of 12 weeks, because the Department for Work and Pensions can’t get their act together. The minimum wait has been reduced to five weeks but it’s hardly made any difference of all. Many claimants are paid either weekly or fortnightly before being transitioned onto UC, so having to wait considerably longer places unnecessary stresses and burdens on those who can least afford it. Larger families are already suffering and this will be replicated when they are transferred to UC because they no longer receive benefits for third or subsequent children. The government accepts there will be winners and losers but single parent families are set to lose the most. Esther McVey, the Work and Pensions Secretary has privately said that some families will be £200 per month worse off, Ian Duncan Smith has voiced his concerns and said the scheme needs at least £2 billion of extra funding to continue. Even conservative ministers and ex ministers are not convinced it’s working.
As I said, this is a shambles. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. We’ve even had previous prime ministers wading into the argument too with Sir John Major and Gordon Brown both saying that UC is a disaster and can only get worse. Theresa May, in her recent conference speech, declared austerity to be at an end. Try telling that to those on or about to transfer to UC. It’s no secret that in areas where UC has rolled out there has been an increased use in food banks.
I’m not advocating that we should scrap UC, I believe we’re to far down the line to do that but we do need to stop and take stock of the situation. The Resolution Foundation make a number of sensible recommendations on the continuing roll out. Two of the most sensible are that managed migration over to UC should only start at significant scale when the DWP is entirely satisfied that the system is ready and furthermore the design of the migration should follow the principle that individuals should not bear the burden of risk to their financial standing due to the migration to UC. Instead it should be borne by DWP.
We have a significant number of individuals and families who live on or below the bread line in mid Cornwall and they need reassurance that UC will not disadvantage them further. I’m not hearing any reassurances coming from our MP who has, not surprisingly, kept his head well down over this debacle. I shall be writing to him asking that he puts pressure on his colleagues at Westminster to halt this disastrous scheme until it is fit for purpose. We must demand better for St Austell, Newquay and mid Cornwall.