The Government’s new shake up of the benefits system is the biggest change to the welfare state in England since the Second World War and is being fast tracked at an alarming and reckless rate.
Universal Credit (UC) will replace a range of working age benefits for individuals and their families into one, online-only system. Full roll-out was planned before the 2015 election however, a series of management failures, expensive IT blunders and design faults have seen it fall at least five years behind schedule. From this month the roll out of UC is due to be intensified from five job centres a month to fifty a month and will be with us here in Shields in February 2018.
The Government’s aims for UC seem acceptable, to simplify and streamline the benefits system and to ensure no-one faces a situation where they would be better off claiming benefits than working. But as with all Tory led welfare changes the result has been one where people are being plunged into deepening poverty.
After applying for UC, it takes up to six weeks for claimants to receive their first payment. However, research has shown under UC the Government is failing to pay one in four claims within their own six week period. For many low-income claimants, who lack savings, this in effect leaves them without any money at all for six weeks. The six week delay can cause considerable hardship, but further delays cause real long-term damage to family finances, with long-term debt, bank problems, and direct debit payment of bills no longer available. The huge influx of new claimants will cause hundreds of thousands more families to suffer such problems.
Changes to the Tax Credits allowances will also mean over 2.5m families will be on average £2,100 a year worse off. This makes a mockery of a Prime Minister who when she took office said “The Government I lead will put fairness and opportunity at the heart of everything we do.”
Evidence put before the Government has demonstrated serious flaws in the programme. Among the well-documented consequences for claimants are rent arrears leading in some cases to eviction and hunger as food banks in UC areas report striking increases in referrals. Claimants also complain that universal credit is bafflingly complex, unreliable, and difficult to manage, particularly if you are without internet access.
Alongside Labour a number of organisations including the Trussell Trust, the Citizens Advice Bureau and even 14 Tory MPs have called on the Government to the halt the programme and address the fundamental flaws in the operation of UC, which must be resolved before the full roll-out proceeds. Already the programme is a betrayal of the very people Mrs May pledged to help, if her Government refuses to halt UC then many more will suffer unduly.