Posted: 26 Oct 2018 08:37 AM PDT
Following the report on Universal Credit from the Public Accounts Committee, Paul Morrison argues that Universal Credit is designed to ignore hunger.
Universal Credit: ignoring hunger by design.
Foodbank use in the UK increased 13% last year but in areas that have moved to Universal Credit it has shot up an astonishing 52%. When an MP asked the head of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) why this was, he replied “I don’t know, it is a really good question”.
Churches, charities and claimants themselves have repeatedly said that Universal Credit leads many towards financial crisis and even hunger. The Government has vigorously rejected these claims but has never backed this up with direct evidence. Some have argued that this is because the Government is hiding bad news, but the truth is much more worrying – it simply hasn’t looked.
Half of the UK’s children will be affected
Universal Credit is the largest reform of the benefits system in 70 years. It merges six means tested benefits into one. Only around 1 in 10 receiving Universal Credit will be unemployed – around half will be working and the next largest group will be those unable to work due to illness or disability. The scale is huge, with around 6 million families affected, including around half of the UK’s children.
It is vital to know if families are able to cope on the new benefit. However, in the words of the National Audit Office, the DWP “does not know how many claimants are having problems with (Universal Credit) or have suffered hardship.”
Planning not to look at hardship
The DWP has published a comprehensive “Universal Credit Evaluation Framework”. It outlines the information the Department is going to collect so it can judge if the programme is going well. Surprisingly questions around families being able to cope, experiencing hardship or needing to use foodbanks simply do not come up.
There is a survey of claimants where some relevant questions are asked. It says that 4 in 10 families aren’t coping. The head of the Universal Credit programme, Neil Couling, defends this by saying that you can’t blame Universal Credit because no-one knows if these levels of financial hardship existed before the new benefit was introduced.
The implications of this admission are enormous. Firstly there are a huge number of families suffering. Secondly the most optimistic interpretation of this research is that Universal Credit isn’t helping. Finally, it tells us that the DWP’s survey’s design doesn’t allow us to tell if Universal Credit causes the huge financial problems we can see.
We found this level of ignorance astonishing, so went the route of Parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests to see if anyone in Government knows if families receiving Universal Credit can pay their bills, heat their houses or even afford decent food. So far what we have found is worse than nothing. Ministerial answers confirm there is no information available, and as our research reported in HuffPost shows, potentially useful numbers such as the tally of people referred to foodbanks by Jobcentres is being actively destroyed.
Universal Credit’s priority is not preventing hunger
William Beveridge designed the current benefit system 75 years ago with the express intention of ending poverty, or in his words the “giant evil” of “Want”. Today, the purpose of Universal Credit is very different.
This may come as shock but it is set out clearly in the DWP’s Evaluation Framework. Universal Credit aims to increase employment. It attempts to do this by “changing the behaviours and attitudes” of the families claiming benefit. There are many question to be asked about this approach but the logic is clear: if Universal Credit is not designed to tackle “Want”, why bother measuring levels of hardship?
This means that while the Department knows almost nothing about the hardship caused by Universal Credit, there is copious data about people’s job searches and their attitudes to work. The result is that if you ask how strongly UC claimants agree with the statement “any job is better than none” the DWP can give you full and detailed answers. Ask whether claimants can feed their children and the silence will be deafening.
DWP is testing but not learning
A benefit system is always a balancing act between competing principles. Affordability, incentivising work and ensuring that families have an adequate income have always been set against each other. Universal Credit strikes a new balance emphasising affordability and work incentives. These necessarily come at the expense of providing an adequate income.
Churches are seeing some of the human consequences of this new balance. Some impacts, such as the run on foodbanks, can be counted. We also hear stories of families needing help to get nappies for new-borns, or unwell folk walking for hours to get to the Jobcentre because they cannot afford a bus. I recently met a young mum who was in tears because the transfer to Universal Credit means she cannot afford to continue her childcare course and the future she had worked hard to achieve was disappearing. It is simply unacceptable that the Government has chosen to remain ignorant of the negative consequences of its policy choices.
A properly funded functioning benefit system has the potential to enable people held back by poverty to reach their full potential but this is impossible in families that are simply focused on finding their next meal. The Government says that Universal Credit is a work in progress and that it is using a “test and learn” approach – the question is how can it learn when it does not even look?
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