In a recent blog, Jonathan Bradshaw has suggested that limiting Tax Credits and Universal Credit to two children is the “worst social security policy ever”. There’s a lot of competition for the title. As Jonathan writes,
There are many competitors for this accolade in our history — less eligibility in 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the 1934 Unemployment Assistance Board household means-test, the 1991 Child Support Act, the 2017 lower benefit cap and, probably forthcoming, Universal Credit. But the two-child policy is just morally odious.
That set me to wondering: aren’t there worse examples? Here are a few other contenders.
Settlement and removal. The effect of the settlement laws under the Poor Laws meant that the local parish had to support certain people, and that if they were in need elsewhere they’d be “removed” to their parish of origin. That meant both that parishes did their utmost to avoid illegitimate children being born on their patch – if necessary, picking up a pregnant woman and dumping her on another patch – and that people in need were transported back to their original parish, regardless of their reasons for leaving.
Housing Benefit. The Housing Finance Act 1972 set about demolishing the system of housing subsidies, and trebled rents in the process. Housing Benefit was introduced initially in the form of Rent Rebate and Rent Allowance, supposedly representing a shift from subsidising bricks and mortar to subsisising people. The benefit was staggeringly complex, the costs and management span out of control. The effects were catastrophic, especially when they were combined with the costs of rent from Supplementary Benefit. The first stage might be thought of as a blunder – the theory said that it would be more efficient to direct resources to people. The second stage, introduced when it was evident that the first stage hadn’t worked, was a fiasco. We’re still suffering from the consequences: a destruction of housing subsidies, a diversion of resources to private landlords, a horrendous poverty trap, and the introduction of restrictions (including the benefit cap) because the system is unworkable.
The Griffiths report. Creating a quasi-market system in social care was widely welcomed by many people who ought to have known better, and the system still has its defenders. The system depends on intrusive personal assessment, penal means tests, market distribution (which always leaves gaps) and lengthy delays in service delivery. Some of the defences begin with feeble excuses, such as the claim that it would all have worked if only there was more money and the thing had happened more; some try to deny that we’ve been trying to do this for nearly thirty years and it’s never worked. (It’s a social security policy, because it directs cash towards a test of need rather than providing a basic service. A large part of the funding came from the resources for residential care that were being paid for in social security benefits. )
Reclaiming overpayments. The practice saddles people on low incomes with long-term debts. It used to be the case that claiamnts could only be directed to repay money if they had misrepresented or failed to disclose a material fact. That was overturned with the Tax Credits system, which presented people with demands for repaying thousands of pounds they had no reason to suppose they weren’t entitled to. The Ombudsman laid into the system as being fundamentally unsuited to the needs of the low income families it was supposed to help. Now the same principles are being rolled forward into Universal Credit – and, it seems, the new Scottish system of benefits, including benefits for disability.
Disability assessments. I’ve already referred to personal intrusion. Why is every person who is sick required to undergo an assessment? Why are medical records disregarded? Why is everyone being asked about going to the toilet? Why are most of the people who are too sick to work being required to attend sessions to indicate a readiness to work?
Suspending benefits. When the “four-week rule” was applied, research (by Molly Meacher) reported that about a third of the people subjected to suspensions were convicted of their first criminal offences afterwards. Now lengthy, indiscriminate suspensions have become a major aspect of the social security system, with getting on for a quarter of all claimants having benefits sanctioned for a period, and some having benefits cut off for three years. There are no circumstances where leaving people without enough to buy food is ever justified.
These policies have something in common. In every case, it’s not just that the policies didn’t work; it’s that after they had been tried out and were shown to have bad effects, the responsible governments ploughed on regardless, and rolled them out more generally. That’s the point at which incompetence crosses over into immorality. And that’s why Universal Credit is such a horror: it takes every element in recent years that has been shown not to work (tapers, sanctions, delays, assessments, obstructions to redress, transfers of process across agencies, multiple moving parts, and so on), and builds a whole system round them.