Tagged: Universal Credit

The Economist still likes the idea of Universal Credit

The Economist this week describes Universal Credit as a good idea, badly done.  We can agree at least on the second part.   Here are three justifications they offer for thinking it’s a good idea.

“Streamlining benefits into one monthly payment will eventually make the system easier to deliver.” 

Combining six benefits into one doesn’t actually streamline anything.  Universal Credit ‘brings together’ a range of benefits, but unemployed people are still subject to rules on unemployment benefits, sick people are still subject to rules on sickness (and work conditionality, too!), the housing components are still subject to all the rules on housing benefit, and so on.  Lumping everything together in one mass makes for one, highly complicated benefit.  It also  adds one potentially catastrophic complication: actions which lead to the revision of entitlement in one component (such as changes in household details, or the application of conditionality) can lead, catastrophically, to an interruption or cessation of entitlement.

“It removes perverse incentives whereby somebody moving from welfare to work can lose about as much in benefits as they earn.”

There is a slight mitigation of the ‘poverty trap’, because the interaction of Housing Benefit and Tax Credits are removed for some; but since the taper is 63%, further deductions are made from salary for National Insurance and tax, and the system doesn’t include Council Tax rebates, the  marginal rate of deduction is typically 70-74%, and can be more.

“Allowing people to make a single application for all their benefits should improve take-up, and so reduce poverty.” 

Requiring people to negotiate a complex system, with limited flexibility about application details, has caused major problems in access – check, for example, this blog entry on the NAO report in July – and that can be expected to appear in takeup figures in due course.

It seems, however, that the myth that Universal Credit was sound in principle refuses to lie down and die, despite being shot, stabbed, buried, set on fire and otherwise subject to refutation.   When the scheme was first mooted in October 2010, I wrote that it was over-simplified, impractical and couldn’t achieve what the government claimed it would achieve.  If government sets up a scheme that can’t possibly work, it shouldn’t be surprising that it will make a mess when it’s  put into practice.

The problems with Universal Credit are grim. There are not really more of them, there are just more of the old problems.

The report on Universal Credit by the Public Accounts Committee is pretty damning, but that should come as no surprise.  The PAC argues, amongst other things, that

  • The Department’s systemic culture of denial and defensiveness in the face of any adverse evidence presented by others is a significant risk to the programme.

  • Universal Credit causes financial hardship for claimants including increased debt and rent arrears, and forces people to use foodbanks.

  • The Department is failing vulnerable claimants because it places too much reliance on the discretion of its work coaches to identify and manage the needs of people requiring extra support.

  • The package of support to help claimants adjust to Universal Credit is not fit for purpose

  • Universal Credit is pushing costs onto the local organisations that support claimants – including local authorities, housing associations, and foodbanks.

  • We are seriously concerned about the Department’s ability to transfer around 4 million people from existing welfare benefits to Universal Credit without causing further hardship to claimants.

They also comment that the DWP can’t assess or justify its claim that UC will push another 200,000 people into work, but that’s hardly a major criticism; the suggestion that a rollout causing hardship to 6-7 million people can possibly be justified by changing the behaviour of 200,000 of them simply reinforces the lamentable distortion of perspective and priorities that has blighted this system from the start.

The flurry of criticisms that people have been making in the last couple of weeks are of different kinds.  Some are about poor administration.  Claimants are supposed to track changes in their online journals, and the DWP can’t absorb information that’s presented in this way.  (Even The Sun has noticed.)  Claimants who fall into rent arrears – that’s most – may have direct payments to landlords, but there is evidence from Citizens Advice that in some cases the DWP is deducting the rent from the benefit and not passing it on.  A disturbing proportion of new claims are paid late, or not paid enough.  The DWP is holding claimants to standards that it’s unable to meet itself.

Other criticisms, however, concern the way the benefit has been designed.  The concern about women at risk of abuse was raised formally more than five years ago.  UC has also been criticised for not being able to deal with people who don’t fit in its boxes, but the problems with dealing with non-standard “pathways” were identified right at the start.  In 2003, the DWP commissioned a report which told them that segmentation, or working to ‘typical’ profiles, wouldn’t work: “Profiling outperforms the random allocation of treatments but wrong denial and wrong treatment rates are not trivial”.  That didn’t deter pilots of segmentation for unemployed people in 2005, presenting details of segments in 2010 (when UC was first announced) and further commissioning of a ‘proof of concept’ on it in 2014.  The problem is basic.  This system is supposed to offered a personalised response to millions of people, and with that many people, there will always be some who just don’t fit.

 

Universal Credit: the monster staggers on

It’s being reported that Universal Credit is to be delayed again.  There are also suggestions that a small number of minor tweaks will be made – allowing legacy benefits to run on for two weeks, changing direct payment rules and altering rules for self-employment.  None of that really gets to the heart of the problems.  The system is simply not designed for the variety and complexity of conditions it is supposed to deal with.

The BBC offers this graph of delays, citing the National Audit Office as source.  It’s kind to the record, because it waves aside the failed attempts that led to the system being “reset” in 2013.  The original deadline for the completion of the rollout was not 2019, but 2017.  The planning has, of course, been going on since 2010, and at no stage has it ever seemed likely that UC could be delivered, as Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed it would be, on time and within budget.

Universal Credit delays graphic

I’ve been blogging about the problems with Universal Credit since October 2010, and complaining about the bogus claims made for it since the first glimpse of a business case in 2013.    The Treasury failed altogether to follow its own procedures, undertaking massive expenditures before any plan had been submitted.  The lack of routine scrutiny has been scandalous; but not as scandalous, I regret, as the way that claimants have been treated in the hope of sparking life into the monster.

Unifying benefits is hardly a new idea

In the comments to a previous posting, Andrew Hatton asks when the idea of first unifying benefits was seriously considered by a UK Government. I started to respond within the comments, and then thought it might stand as an entry on its own.

It might reasonably be argued that governments in these islands have always thought in terms of unified systems. The Tudor poor law  of 1536, inspired by the model of Ypres, created national law for responding to poverty. The statutes of 1598 and 1601 – the “Old Poor Law” – instituted a national scheme, at least in principle. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act – the “New Poor Law” – was designed to implement a uniform regime within that scheme, treating for example older people and unemployed people on the same terms. The Beveridge scheme was supposed to create a unified national administration based on insurance – popularly described as a system to cover people ‘from the cradle to the grave’. National Assistance initially included income and welfare services for every group not covered by insurance. And Supplementary Benefit, its successor, incorporated a range of provisions into a single means-tested benefit: income, unemployment, disability, rent, mortgages, sickness, old age, residential care for older people and child support among them. Universal Credit is not a great, original idea; it revisits the portmanteau benefits of the past.

Marina Hyde, writing in the Guardian, puts her finger on one of the key problems with Universal Credit.  “The most dangerous type of politician”, she comments, is “the sort who thinks that very complicated things are actually very simple.”  And I wrote something similar in the Guardian myself shortly after Universal Credit was first mooted.

Benefits deal with millions of people, and recipients’ lives are diverse and complicated. If universal credit responds to their needs, it will also be diverse and complicated – and therefore expensive. If it does not, it will cause hardship – and it will look unfair.

There have been, of course, other types of unifying scheme, and currently the one which is most discussed is Universal Basic Income – an idea which has been around since the eighteenth century.  Some of the models for UBI are utopian, but if we take UBI to mean an all-singing, all dancing answer to every human problem, it will fail for the same reason that all the other combined schemes fail: people’s lives are too complicated to be covered neatly and simply in a uniform way.  It’s more important to focus on the idea that Basic Income is meant to be basic – a springboard, an element of income that can be mixed with other income – and forget the idea that it will then be possible to junk everything else about the benefit system, because it won’t be.

Labour: time to rethink benefits policy

The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”.   An article last month in the New Statesman blamed  the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy.  The problems run much deeper.

A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits,  the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work.   The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax,  Housing Benefit cuts and the like.  Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better.  And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all.  The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.

The problems of Universal Credit aren’t just about transition

I looked at the report of the Resolution Foundation on Universal Credit when it came out, but wasn’t particularly excited by it.  It seems to say that the system can still be made to work given time and effort, and I’m not convinced that it can.  I referred to a number of the “teething” problems, so-called, in a previous post: they included

  • the difficulties people have in making digital claims
  • the lack of reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities
  • requiring claimants to make claims in order to migrate, and using mistakes or omissions as a reason to demand  fresh claims
  • insufficient levels of ‘universal support’
  • obstacles to cooperation with welfare rights advisers
  • the DWP’s apparent inability to engage with the process by which claimants report changes, the electronic ‘journal’, and
  • the inappropriate use of sanctions.

But there are many more problems, where the system simply cannot operate as intended.  Those include

  • the muddled system for verification, which cannot be done online
  • the demand for instant assessment, rather than basing claims on previous, known income
  • the unpredictability of a system where entitlements can be revised at short notice before payment date
  • the use of individuated payment dates
  • the lack of effective coordination with taxation
  • the confused treatment of self-employed people
  • the alterations to work allowances, which mean among other things that contact will no longer be maintained
  • the effect of fluctuating entitlement on household management, particular evident in the treatment of rent
  • the impact of the system on housing finance, and
  • arrangements for transition that  lead to major income loss.

Beyond that, in terms of the overall design of the benefit, there are several systemic flaws:

  • the complex means test
  • the reliance on digital systems
  • the reliance on immediate access to information that people cannot know about
  • the high taper rates
  • the failure to individuate claims
  • the lack of flexibility, and
  • the central confusion about employment and job-seeking – once the system is fully rolled out, most claimants on Universal Credit will not be seeking work.

The operational problems are all difficult, requiring a rethink of policy and administration to make the system work .  However, even if they were all to be resolved, the fundamental defects in the system would remain.

Problems in migrating to Universal Credit

The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) has made a submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee about ‘managed migration’ to Universal Credit.  They point to a series of problems:

  • the difficulties people have in making digital claims
  • the lack of reasonable adjustments for people with disabilities
  • requiring claimants to make claims in order to migrate, and using mistakes or omissions as a reason to demand  fresh claims
  • insufficient levels of ‘universal support’
  • obstacles to cooperation with welfare rights advisers
  • the DWP’s apparent inability to engage with the process by which claimants report changes, the electronic ‘journal’
  • the inappropriate use of sanctions.

All of this implies a need to “pause and fix”.  But even if that happens, the fundamental problems in the design and delivery of the benefit will still be there.

Universal Credit still fails to deliver

The DWP has just released statistics that tell us that

83% of new claims to Universal Credit Full Service received full payment on time.
94% of new claims received full payment within 4 weeks of the payment due date.
97% of new claims received full payment within 8 weeks of the payment due date.

This is an improvement.  According to the NAO report, in 2017 a quarter of new claims were not paid on time, and in March it was 21%.  However, it’s still woefully sub-standard.  The DWP has five weeks to process claims; the complexity of the system means that many claimants have already suffered delays before they get that far; by this account, some of them will not have received payment within three months.

Is it possible to do it faster?  Supplementary Benefit, a complex benefit delivered to cover more than six million claims a year without the benefit of computers, used to have a target of 14 days.  The Conservative minister Linda Chalker told Parliament in March 1980:

I should like to say a few words about our intentions. Regulations will be made to put the supplementary benefit position broadly on a par with the similar provisions for national insurance … That means that benefit officers will be required to determine new and repeat claims as far as is practicable within 14 days of the time when they are in possession of all the information necessary to make a determination. I emphasise that, as my right hon. Friend said in Committee, the vast majority of new and repeat claims for supplementary benefit are cleared well within the 14-day period. But I accept that regulations along the lines that I propose will serve as a useful reminder of the need for speed in resolving claims.

 

More evidence (if you needed it) that Universal Credit is failing

It’s not been a good month for Universal Credit.  Hard on the heels of the release of the Full Business Case, there has been a critical report from the National Audit Office and a troubling review of the operation of Universal Credit based on the experience of claimants.  Neither of them shows the system in a good light.  The NAO report casts doubt on the efficiency of service delivery and questions whether any of the claimed advantages of the reform can be realised.  They write:

We cannot be certain that Universal Credit will ever be cheaper to administer than the benefits it replaces.

There is no clear reason to suppose that the system will save money or that fraud and error will be reduced, and the impact on employment  is unknown and unknowable.  The review of the system’s operation finds that the system is complex, difficult to access and the support is inadequate.   Only half the claimants managed to claim without help, and the NAO found that rather less than half managed to get through the verification procedures online.  A quarter of claimants couldn’t submit a claim online at all. There were particular problems for older claimants and people with health conditions.  Then, after claiming. getting on for half the claimants were falling behind on bills or experiencing major difficulties.

One of the points that the NAO picks up on is timeliness in payment.  This little gem offers  the DWP’s reasons for late payments:

2.20  … The Department has told us that the performance had
declined because payment timeliness is sensitive to staff availability. It believes the lower performance can be attributed to:
• poor weather leading to office closures;
• February being a shorter month and therefore incorporating fewer working days to administer payments; and
• the Easter bank holidays.

Who could have guessed that there would be bad weather during the winter, that February would be shorter than other months, or that there would be a bank holiday at Easter?

Depressingly, the NAO  thinks we’re committed – this has gone on too long to be unwound again.  But there were still only 815,000 claimants in March, 325000 of them on ‘live service’ using legacy systems; that means that there are half a million people on full service, when the system is supposed to deal with 8.5 million.  It still makes sense to pause the rollout and fix what can be fixed.

Additional note, 15th June:  This is not so much an additional note as a reminder.  We’re being told, yet again, that Universal Credit was a great idea and everyone liked it.  I first objected to the ideas behind Universal Credit in October 2010, starting on the day that Iain Duncan Smith announced the scheme.  I argued then that the proposal was simplistic and impractical.  “There is no reason to believe that this scheme will increase incentives to work. There is no reason to suppose it will reduce fraud or error – quite the contrary. And there is no real basis for supposing it will make any difference in getting people to work instead. The government’s hopes for the new scheme look like wishful thinking.”  More than eight years later, there’s not a word of that I need to change.

I might add, though, an objection to the silly argument that UC is a success because more people receiving Universal Credit are getting into work while on the benefit.  The Resolution Foundation comments on the basis that 110,000 more people are in work; the DWP says that 200,000 will be.  The NAO has already commented that we can’t know whether this has anything to do with benefits at all, but let’s assume for a moment that it’s true.  This is a scheme intended to cover eight and a half million people (the figure is on page 4 of the  NAO report).  If 200,000 more people work, that covers less than one person in 42.  If it’s 110,000, it’s one person in 77.  For every person who gets more work than before, there are something between 40 and 75 who don’t. Universal Credit is  a scheme that introduces confusion and hardship for  roughly  half of all claimants.  Does it really make sense to make twenty or thirty people suffer to get one of them – just one – into a job? 

If governments seriously wanted to get people into work, it would be cheaper, fairer and easier to make jobs instead.

 

The DWP has published the Full Business Case for Universal Credit.

I have to confess to a weakness for fantasy fiction, but there are times when the willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t come easily.   The DWP’s Full Business Case for UC, Neil Couling’s entry for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, scores well for imagination but lacks conviction.

There’s been a fairly dedicated attempt to avoid direct comparison with the equally unbelievable business case published in 2014.  At that time, the DWP was claiming that  Universal Credit would bring benefits of  £35.9 billion, consisting of  £9.1 bn for reduced worklessness, £21.1 bn in distributional improvements, higher takeup and entitlement, £1.5 bn in reduced fraud and error, £3.7 bn in reduced admin costs,  and £0.5 bn in improved health.  Now the claim is 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.

We’re being asked to believe that a system that has greatly reduced work allowances, and gets withdrawn much more rapidly than originally envisaged, will do vastly more to get people into work than was claimed last time.  And (given that the error figures have jumped across categories) we’re also supposed to believe that savings on fraud are six times greater than they were before, at a time when all the indications are that UC is more vulnerable to fraud than the previous system was.  What is supposed to make this plausible?