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Credit: Jacob Christensen

Without Rethinking Welfare, There Can Be No ‘Humane’ Universal Credit

The latest Joseph Rowntree Foundation report has found that universal credit (UC) is pushing people into destitution. In almost half of the interviews they conducted, UC was spontaneously mentioned as a trigger for destitution. Yet, if we cast our mind back a couple of weeks, the chief architect of UC was highlighting the apparent humanity of this new system. Sitting in front of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Iain Duncan Smith proclaimed that “the human sense needs to be focused on.”

Unfortunately, however, the former secretary of state for work and pensions already believes the introduction and roll-out of universal credit is a fundamentally just system. Despite the fact that all evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. He continually referenced “the human element” of universal credit, conjuring up images of “model citizens” gleefully transitioning from unemployment to a well-paying, secure job with their hand held by a caring employee of the local job-centre.

Yet, this vision remains a utopia. The fact remains that universal credit (UC) is still billions of pounds less generous than the six benefits that it will ultimately replace. In areas where UC has been rolled out, more people have had to turn to food banks. Despite initially promising to lift 350,000 children out of poverty, the Child Poverty Action Group now estimates it will be responsible for pushing more children into it. I’d argue that there are three inherent contradictions that lay at the heart of universal credit and its associated woes.

The first is empirical. Baroness Ruth Lister has written for us before about how the six-week wait (now reduced to five) is a damaging policy decision with disastrous consequences for families. This latest effort from JRF echoes this sentiment. Furthermore, up to 40% of UC payments can be taken for previously-owed debt obligations, leaving hundreds of thousands of claimants with an even measlier amount of money to survive on. Research conducted by the Centre for Responsible Credit has found that around 7.6 million people in the UK are already spending over a quarter of their income on repaying debts. The current 40% threshold for debt repayments in UC is exacerbating this private debt crisis.

The second is contextual. Largely thanks to the introduction and recent rises in the national minimum and living wage, the proportion of people on low pay in the UK is at its lowest in 30 years. However, 4.9 million people remain on low-pay and despite the full implementation of the national living wage by 2020, 4 million people will still be on low-pay in 2020. The goal of UC to move people into work is not enough when 1 in 8 workers are themselves living in poverty. The current system has been described as “do-it-yourself job searching” so issues such as progression in work remain well off-the-radar.

The third, and the largest barrier, is conceptual. There can be no human sense of a social security system that is built on sanctions and stigma. The most comprehensive study of welfare conditionality conducted in the UK to date recently published a scathing review of the current system. “The analysis of longitudinal interviews with UC participants found that welfare conditionality was neither effective nor ethical.” They concluded that benefit sanctions did next to nothing to enhance motivation or get people into work. The National Audit Office issued a similar warning almost two years ago but yet we persist with the same approach.

The current welfare system is predicated on the distinction between those who deserve support and those who don’t. The idea of welfare sponges or scroungers is so pervasive that even those on benefits will routinely ‘other’ fellow recipients; distancing themselves from a contemptuous public narrative. This hostility towards ‘welfare’ is built off the back of a rampant individualism and increasingly outdated view of the state as an antiquated, inefficient monolith.

As such, first and foremost, we need a cultural shift in how we understand welfare. Progress has been made in Scotland where they recently enshrined a rights-based approach to social security into law. Their approach recognises that “respect for the dignity of individuals is to be at the heart of the Scottish social security system”, with an independent body scrutinising the compatibility of new welfare measures with international human rights protocols.

Fully funding UC (which even Iain Duncan Smith has called for) and transitioning to measures that genuinely help people into and progressing in work are therefore necessary but not sufficient. For the human sense to truly be focused on, any social security system must be built on notions of respect and solidarity.