The Misery of Universal Credit

Universal Credit equals misery for all those dependent on it

The roll-out of the Tory government’s flagship policy is woefully behind schedule. However by this time next year all of Scotland and the UK will be covered with individuals and their families in work age benefits having to apply. It is the responsibility of the left to not only support all who are affected by this cruel regime, but help organise a campaign against it and offer an alternative.

It was Frank Field and ‘new’ Labour which first mooted the concept of Universal Credit – a single payment instead of having to claim for different benefits. This was over six years ago. After the Tories came to power, Iain Duncan Smith announced this as their flagship policy stating it would make ‘work pay’. Individuals and families would receive a single monthly payment, one per household as working families did. Even at this early stage, the third sector and charities warned of the dangers of paying housing benefit directly instead of to landlords and of concerns for children and partners who would no longer receive any payment. It has long been accepted that child benefit should be paid to the main family carer of children, providing a very basic safety net of regular income. As a remnant of a decent welfare state, this is likely to be demolished as we move towards the Americanization of state benefits.

‘Work must pay’ according to the Tories and, if this means single parents having to travel long distances and be unable to care for school age children, so be it. In the areas where Universal Credit has been trialled, there have been reports of individuals and their families facing extreme poverty. This is an online system and, without access to a computer, people face a harsh sanction system. Although a phone line free of charge will be up and running in January after a public outcry, many report trying to stand in a free Wi-Fi area to speak to a human on the helpline which can take hours.

It is the most vulnerable in our society who face cuts in local services as well as these at a national level. Duncan-Smith at the beginning said families with a disabled person would not be affected but this has been conveniently forgotten and never announced. People with disabilities and unpaid carers will face the firing squad which is Universal Credit. So will people who receive housing benefit both in and not in work. This will include social landlords. Councils and housing associations have made public their dismay that in the many areas piloting Universal Credit many tenants have gone into arrears and their income from rent is being reduced. Private landlords who prop up a system with insufficient social housing have threatened to not take on or evict tenants on Universal Credit.

Like many of the binary policy choices of the Tories, Universal Credit is more than just a payment – it is propaganda promoting the concept of the ‘feckless poor’. If an emergency happens and no other help is available, people may use their Universal Credit payment and face arrears in housing. What will happen to them during the assessment process when a new claim is made or during the sanction regime? Those on Universal Credit may find themselves facing the fear of losing their home.

The left has known about the impact of Universal Credit for years. Nowadays, the murmurs of ‘down with this’ are increasing as even Tory MPs and Frank Fields are seeing what is happening to actual people, not just statistics on a piece of paper, alarming. We all know by now that anyone moving to Universal Credit before last Christmas will not receive a payment until the New Year. Some people have waited much longer and face having to apply again if there is a change in income.

Many of us work in our local communities helping fill out forms and applications as statutory services are overwhelmed. It is time to form a resistance rather than trying to help and plug gaps. Like the poll and bedroom taxes, this should lead to a campaign by all on the left. We need to provide education in order to be effective in supporting those affected. A Citizen’s Income and a decent minimum wage are essential to our message as our stronger unions with greater coverage. We have to hold both Holyrood and Westminster governments accountable and let them just blame each other. Fine speeches are good but action is essential now. By this time next year, Universal Credit will be rolled out over all of Scotland and Britain. It is now time for action and time to do what we do best by standing with those affected.

Sandra Webster is an unpaid carer. She is an anti-poverty campaigner and writer as well as member of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP).

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