An inquiry in London is asking how Universal Credit can be replaced. I’ve previously supported calls to ‘pause’ or stop its roll-out. Unfortunately, with more than two million people enrolled, we’re well past the point where it can be stopped or cancelled in its present form. The most important change passed when UC moved past its previous focus on unemployed people and started to enrol other people with a wide range of needs. Most people who are unemployed cease to be unemployed within a few months, but longer-term claimants are much more likely to be chronically sick or disabled. They need stable, secure protections. Universal Credit is not good at providing them, because of the fluctuations in the level of support provided, but the support cannot just be removed while a new system is sorted out. Transfers from existing benefits can be stopped, but new enrolments can’t be – there have to be benefits available for sickness, unemployment, low earnings.
What can be done, then, to deal with this catastrophe? Forget the easy, unified solutions; that’s how the mess was made in the first place. The only practical approach is to start to dismantle the system by moving to new, compartmentalised benefits dealing with the principal contingencies. Start with invalidity, or long term sickness: it needs to be removed from the principle of work-testing, because the whole point of the provision is that it is supposed to deal with people who it’s not reasonable to expect to work. Most of the regulations introduced for ESA or UC have been screamingly inappropriate. Think about child care; it may be best to take it out of the benefit system altogether. The changes to Pension Credit are new – couples where one person is still of working age can transfer back to the pension system with no loss. Housing Benefits are still largely in place – they won’t be for long, and local authorities have been losing expert staff, but the long-heralded abolition of Housing Benefit for pensioners hasn’t happened yet, and that system could keep going.
I’m not going to go through every aspect of the benefit in the same way, but the principle should be clear. Whenever you have a complicated problem, the way to deal with it is not with a single, complicated answer. To deal with an unmanageable problem, break it up into slightly less complicated ones; break those up in turn into smaller ones, and keep going until there’s a group of problems that it’s actually possible to deal with.
This is, of course, the opposite of what Universal Credit was supposed to do. The approach is made a little easier by the fact that Universal Credit is not, and never could have been, a unified system: it already has compartments for different aspects of the service (unemployment, employment, housing and so forth). The system can’t be abolished overnight. It has to be taken apart piece by piece.