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Universal Credit, universal misery

The UK government policy of Universal Credit is unanimously criticised by food banks, and homeless charities, as a major contributor to the further immiseration of the poorest sectors of society


Steve Latham


The idea was initially presented as a solution to the complex system of multiple benefits, confusing to many claimants, and as a way to encourage people back into work.

In practice, however, it has led to increased poverty and debt, through delays in payments, and tighter criteria for qualification.

In part this has been due to way the policy has been implemented, designed to be applied by stages in different areas.

This gradual approach has, however, given the government a fig-leaf to present its postponement of full implementation, as a deliberate learning process, rather than the mess it is.

In addition, there has been a deliberate toughening up. For example, to remedy the problem of delays, advance payments are now made.

Photo: Pixabay

But these are only loans, to be repaid when the benefit itself kicks in. In addition, the level of payments has been pegged at a level at which many find it difficult to live.

This makes it possible therefore for the government to claim the policy is a ‘success’. And Universal Credit has indeed resulted in more people leaving benefits and entering work.

But this is only because their condition is so much worse, that they are willing to take even unsuitable jobs.

This is far from the original intention of Ian Duncan Smith, who created the initiative. Hardly a bleeding-heart liberal, his Catholic faith nevertheless did give him a social conscience.

A 2002 visit to Easterhouse, in Glasgow, appalled him, with its grim urban poverty. And he formed the Centre for Social justice in 2004, after he stepped down from leading the Conservative Party.

Ian Duncan Smith. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His proposal in 2010 to introduce Universal Credit, a single benefit in place of the six previous payments, was ostensibly aimed at making the system fairer and simpler.

However, his sympathetic approach was torpedoed by the policy of austerity, after the recession, in which the government tried to make the poor pay for the sins of the rich.

This political decision transformed Ian Duncan Smith’s, perhaps well-intentioned, plan into an excuse for spending cuts.

Welfare, education, and health, all suffered spending cuts, to reduce a national debt caused by the mistakes of the banks and financial sector.

A further flaw lies in the policy’s rationalistic utilitarianism. While it seems logical to simplify six payments into one, this actually ignores human complexity.

Photo: Pixabay

It is hard to fit the subtleties of human experience into the bureaucratic categories of a one-size-fits-all approach like Universal Credit.

Although easier to administer, this is only because it is more draconian. It is, however, more complicated for claimants, facing a system designed to make it harder to receive benefits.

This is a further instance of the government’s “hostile environment”. Originally a policy of the Home Office, towards immigrants, under Teresa May, hostility is now directed to all the poorest in society.

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