Esther McVey Esther McVey in Chippenham, 2015. Photo: Flickr/Gareth Milner

The Tory government’s welfare reform programme ruins lives and must be scrapped, argues Steph Pike

Universal Credit was brought in by the Tories in October 2013 to replace working age benefits including Employment Support Allowance, Job Seekers Allowance, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit. It was the flagship of the Tory government’s welfare reform programme.

The Tory government claimed that UC was designed to simplify the benefits system and to ‘incentivise’ people to move into work by ensuring people were better off working. Since 2013 UC has been beset by continual problems and controversy, with implementation delayed and the full roll out of UC not due to be completed until 2023.

In their 2010 White Paper, ‘Welfare that Works’ the Government promised that ‘no-one will experience a reduction in their benefits as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit’. It then immediately launched its austerity programme, unleashing a frenzy of cuts that has decimated Local Authority spending by 60%, starved the NHS of funding leaving millions of people without the care and support they need.

The cuts have been deliberately targeted at the poorest and those least able to bear them. Between 2013 and 2017 there have been at least ten significant changes to UC. All of these changes have been cuts.

In areas where UC has been introduced the number of people in rent arrears has increased from 23% to over 70%, and foodbanks have reported a 52% increase in demand. Research has found that 600,000 working lone parents, 750,000 households on disability benefits and 600,000 self-employed people will be worse off under UC with some households losing up to £6,500 a year. The biggest losers are disabled people and families with more than two children.

Research forecasts that child poverty will increase substantially by 2021/22 and that welfare reform, including UC, will push a further 1.5 million children into poverty by the end of the decade. Schools are reporting a worrying increase in children going to school hungry and without clean clothes and the 44% rise in the number of hospital patients being treated for malnutrition since the Tories came to power has been linked to rising poverty. These statistics are shocking enough. But behind the statistics are real people, thousands of people who are already struggling as a consequence of moving on to UC.

Having worked as a welfare rights adviser at a foodbank in one of the poorest boroughs in London I have seen first-hand how cruel Universal Credit is and the suffering it is causing:

  • people without money and without food because they have to wait a minimum of five weeks for their first UC payment
  • a young homeless woman who had her UC sanctioned for being 5 minutes late for an appointment after walking an hour to the job centre as she had no money for her bus fare
  • a disabled man sanctioned because when he got to the job centre it had no lift and he couldn’t walk upstairs to his appointment on the first floor
  • a single parent who had her benefit capped despite earning the above the limit when the benefit cap shouldn’t be applied because the UC system monthly assessment cycle does not match the way people are paid so treated her as having no earned income for one month leaving her unable to pay her bills or afford food for her children
  • a man with mental health problems who claimed UC and told the DWP he was too ill to work was sanctioned multiple times after the DWP failed to send him for a medical assessment and instead insisted he look for work for 35 hours a week leaving him destitute and suicidal
  • a woman with learning disabilities who couldn’t make an online claim and had to wait 2 months to get a home visit from the DWP.

These cases are not unusual and there is overwhelming evidence that thousands of people already on UC are being driven further into poverty and destitution.

These are not teething problems, they are problems inherent in the design and administration of a benefit intended to take money from the poorest; a benefit tailored to the needs and political ideology of the government rather than the needs of claimants.

The problems with Universal Credit were raised with the government before it was implemented. The government didn’t listen. The government introduced UC in pilot areas to ‘test and learn’. It learnt nothing and ignored all the early evidence of the hardship and suffering that UC was causing. Over the past five years it has continued to roll out a benefit increasingly condemned as unfit for purpose by activists, campaign groups, trades unions, housing providers, charities, the National Audit Office and senior politicians including Gordon Brown and John Major.

The rise in homelessness, the increase in poverty and destitution, the rise in despair and suicides we have seen so far is a national scandal. But it is only the tip of the iceberg. The government plans to move 7 million people currently on benefits onto UC over the next 5 years.

By the government’s own admission, 25% of UC claims fail before any payment has been received. Many of these claims fail because of the complexity and poor administration of the benefit, leaving thousands of people without any financial support at all. Yet the Tories plan to ‘move’ people onto UC by stopping their benefits and insisting they make a new claim for UC, placing all the financial risk on the poorest in society who are least able to bear it.

Universal Credit is an ideological and financial attack on the poorest in society and a chilling attempt at social engineering, punishing those families with more than 2 children by withdrawing financial support; an attack by a Tory government intent on destroying public services and the welfare state.

Since its inception grassroots activists and organisations have been campaigning tirelessly against Universal Credit and have been calling for its abolition. It is good to see that the Labour Party has now called for a complete halt and review of UC, with John McDonnell calling for it to be completely scrapped and that trades unions are now campaigning on this issue. Because of this sustained campaign the Tories are coming under increasing criticism and pressure over a benefit that is being dubbed Theresa May’s ‘poll tax’.

In the Universal Credit debate called by the Labour Party in the House of Commons today many Tory MPs didn’t turn up, presumably either too embarrassed by or indifferent to the suffering their government has wreaked on thousands and thousands of people. Esther McVey spouted her usual lies and platitudes to try and defend the indefensible, and she and the motley crew of Tories ranged behind her sneered and jeered as evidence of the suffering and destitution UC had caused was laid before them. The contempt the Tory Government has for ordinary people has never been so evident.

Despite the callous bravado of Esther McVey, the Tory government is rattled. The word on the street is that the government will announce concessions and that the budget at the end of October will announce more money for Universal Credit. We don’t know exactly what the Tories are planning but what can be sure of is that they will do the bare minimum to pretend they are listening and to try and stave off further criticism. They will not replace the £13 billion pounds they have already stolen from the poorest through social security cuts.

The minor changes the Tories are likely to make will not address the fundamental and systemic problems inherent in Universal Credit. It is a benefit that is unreformable; a benefit that has been universally discredited. The campaign must continue until this brutal benefit is scrapped.

Steph Pike

Steph Pike a is a revolutionary socialist, feminist and People's Assembly activist. She is also a  published poet. Her poetry collection 'Petroleuse' is published by Flapjack Press.

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