The report on Universal Credit by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee will not come as a great surprise to anyone who’s been following the evidence. (Except, perhaps, me: I submitted an evidence paper myself in March, and in the wake of moving house, and major illness six weeks after that, I’d quite forgotten that I’d done it until I saw it quoted on page 12.) The chair of the committee, Lord Forsyth, has suggested that the report approves of UC in its ‘concept’, but that there are problems with its design and its administration. Given the questions that the committee raises about real-time information, digital access and fluctuating incomes, I think the criticisms go beyond that. The problems they recognise also include a familiar litany of failures: among them, the 5 week wait, unpredictable benefit streams(“impractical” and “fundamentally unfair”), conditionality, the two-child limit and inadequate levels of benefit. Despite all that, the system is “not broken irredeemably”.
The initial request for evidence asked whether UC had achieved its objectives. As the statement of objectives has frequently shifted for political expediency, it’s hard to say even what the current tests are, but the committee proposes a range of distinct principles: dignity, adequacy, providing a predictable income, flexibility, fairness, achievable ends and comprehensibility. They suggest that there could be a two-week payment up front, a three month fixed level of payment, and that child support could be taken out of the system altogether – those all seem to me to be good ideas. But the fundamental problems will remain: a tapered benefit, an obsession with getting people to work when most of its claimants are either already in work or aren’t going to be in the labour market, and a reliance on information that can’t be supplied or managed.