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.