A thoughtful blog by Fran Bennett asks whether Universal Credit will come into its own now that more than a million more people have claimed it. She argues that the benefit has been changed in important respects as a result of the current crisis. The biggest changes have been the extension of the benefit to cover self-employed people, the abandonment of work requirements, and the reluctant acknowledgement that the benefit is no longer primarily concerned with long term dependency on welfare – if it ever was.
Many of the complaints about Universal Credit focus on mean-spirited, ill-considered rules rather than the essentials. The benefit cap, the two child limit and the five-week wait for benefits are all high on the list. But the flaws in the benefit run much deeper.
The central failing of Universal Credit reflects a failure to appreciate that people cannot live on thin air. Benefits have to provide for financial need; they have to secure essentials; they have to allow people whose income is interrupted to meet essential commitments, such as housing costs or fuel bills, even if those commitments are higher than a person living on a minimal subsistence income would need. Universal Credit does not secure even a minimal income. In normal times, benefits have routinely been stopped arbitrarily. The rise of the food banks is not an accident of nature. Even with all the changes that the government has made in the current crisis, there are some obvious problems. People have to go without for weeks before they receive money. If they receive an ‘advance’ payment, it is treated as a debt which they must repay, guaranteeing that their future income will be inadequate. Some people are excluded altogether.
The next set of problems relate to the benefit’s unpredictability. Universal Credit adjusts to income, and income is intermittent. The attempt to adjust benefits on a ‘whole month’ basis means that the amount of entitlement can be changed very shortly before its actual payment. Unless people are completely destitute (and growing numbers of people are), they cannot reasonably be expected to know whether or not they will be entitled, how much benefit they should receive, and when they might cease to be entitled. It is a prescription for confusion.
The third, and possibly the most fundamental flaw in the scheme is its dizzying complexity. It tries to deal with far to many disparate circumstances, and it does most of them badly. The treatment of disability, divorce, chronic sickness, housing subsidies, low income and care have been rammed forcibly into a template that was intended to deal with a tiny number of people who were continuously unemployed for long periods. It inflicts injustice on all of them.
Universal Credit has wrought disaster at every point of its development. We cannot just stop delivering it, but we push it to the sidelines – putting more money into benefits that can offer a reasonable degree of social protection. This one never will.