Universal Credit has its defenders, and the Daily Express has come out fighting:
“disruptive” proposals could hammer 30 million Britons, cost tens of billions of pounds and send taxes soaring.
The middle bit of this could be true, because all major reforms have a price tag; introducing Universal Credit had cost more than £2bn by last year, though that figure ignores the false start and ‘reset’. The very belated Final Business Case claimed that UC will gain £24.5 bn in people choosing to work more, £10.5 bn in distributional improvements, and £9.1 billion in reduced fraud and error. The National Audit Office has told us that “We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces”; their 2018 report said that
the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.
We now know that the figure on fraud and error is wrong, and that Universal Credit has made fraud and error much worse; and ‘distributional improvements’ don’t save money, they move it to a different place. So the only possible saving could be by encouraging people into work, and given that only a very small proportion of claimants are continuously unemployed – the majority of claimants are too ill to work, carers, short-term unemployed or already working on low incomes – it isn’t going to be anything like £24.5bn. If I had to guess, I would estimate the net gain, by comparison with the previous system, at something closer to zero.
That leaves us with the extraordinary claim that 30 million benefit claimants will be affected. Yes, that really is what the Express article says:
It would immediately impact around one million people currently on Universal Credit, but it would likely also have an impact on the 30 million-plus people receiving some form of benefits.
To get anywhere near 30m, that has to include all pensioners, and every child where the families receive Child Benefit. It seems that the lives of children and pensioners have been turned around by the prospect of a benefit that neither group gets, and they can all look forward to a brighter future, if only this benefit remains in place. But perhaps I mistake the argument, and the Britons in question are the occupants of a parallel dimension, like the Man in the High Castle, where everything is subtly different. Suddenly, everything in the Express starts to make sense.