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.