The government’s plans for reforming social security benefits have been mis-sold. They have been presented as if the primary focus was getting unemployed people into work – along with people with serious physical and mental disabilities, who are most of the people identified as being long-term claimants of working age. The proposals for Universal Credit are about something different. They represent a unification of basic means-tested benefits – Jobseekers’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support – with benefits in work, mainly Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit.
The crucial problem for any scheme that claims to simplify benefits is that they are liable to over-simplify. This scheme is no exception. Benefits cover a wide range of circumstances. They are not just about getting people into work: they are concerned with lots of other issues, including meeting needs, helping people whose incomes are interrupted, economic management. They are complicated because people’s lives are complicated.
This leads to the second key problem: the scheme is quite impractical. The government believes that a new computer programme will make it possible to respond to changes in “real time”, with implementation beginning in 2013. The computer programme does not yet exist – even on paper – but even if it did, it could not do want the government wants it to do. A computer programme, no matter how good it is, can only go as fast as the information that goes into it. People’s circumstances change with starting rapidity. They find it difficult to say what their situation is – whether they are now disabled, whether their partner has really left them, whether or not the prospect of employment means that they now have a job. Building a system on the hope of firm, confident answers cannot work.
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.