The Government has been warned that their plan to see it’s flagship welfare policy – Universal Credit (UC) – implemented within five years is not “credible”. The benefit is to replace six of the main welfare benefits, and tax credits, with a single monthly payment. The aim is to save billions of pounds of taxpayers money.
UC, championed by Duncan Smith with David Cameron’s full support, received royal assent in 2012 with initial plans for a full roll-out by the 2015 general election.
David Freud, who was being questioned by MPs on the Work and Pensions Parliamentary Select Committee, said he was “quite confident” the plan would succeed, despite the fact that previous governments have said that the streamlining process is too complicated to implement unproblematically.
Lord Freud who is the government welfare adviser and somewhat controversial Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, said that he wants seven million people receiving the new Universal Credit by the “end of 2020”, despite only 146,000 people being on the system to date.
He said that the project was following an “S-curve”, which involved a “careful start, big ramp, and then a tail at the end”.
Asked at what stage the scheme was at, he said: “We are coming up to the approach trajectory.”
However, Labour’s Steve McCabe, who serves on the Committee, questioned whether the target was realistic given the modest number of people on it since the programme was “re-set” two years ago.
The MP said: “If we’re at 146,000 and we’re at the bottom of the S as it begins to rise, and you want to get to 7 million by May 2020, that would suggest by any standard you’ve got to be near 3 million in less than 18 months time.
“You’ve got to have a massive escalation at some point. How is that credible? I’m wondering how on earth you seriously believe you’ll hit that figure.”
Speaking to the HuffPost later, he said : “This matters because if you can’t get your projections right what does it mean for your projected savings and does that mean people will suffer? You’re left with a fragmented benefits system and a recipe for chaos.”
In response, Lord Freud insisted there would be “a massive escalation” once the system has been tested fully.
He defended Universal Credit for “producing benefits of £7 billion to society a year”, adding: “I will not hurry the department to do something that is so big.”
“It’s the most incredible programme. It’s much more efficient way of getting money to the poorest people,” he said.
Freud was questioned by the Committee regarding the prospect of the Chancellor raiding the Universal Credit budget and asked if this would delay its roll-out, to which he replied: “It doesn’t give me cause for concern about the roll-out. That’s a slightly different issue.”
He added that changes to tax credits would mean “parallel changes” to the so-called working allowance element of Universal Credit.
He also said he would “doubt it” if tax credits still existed in 2020, meaning they would be “replaced” by then.
“We will go on talking (with the Treasury) because the two systems are in parallel,” Lord Freud said.
Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church and author of the report, said: “No child should be left without enough in order to motivate their parents.
“If children live in a family which doesn’t have enough money they are more likely to die young, do worse at school, and experience worse health.
Commenting on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill and the Government’s proposed cuts to tax credits, Mr Morrison said: “Many of these families are already in work and working very hard.
“Any policy that claims that taking £1,000 from a family will enhance the life-chances of its children, as the Bill does, is not only supremely questionable but morally flawed.”
The study also shows that government policies are out of step with public opinions, too, revealing that 61% of the general public believe benefits should be set at a high enough level to cover basic living costs, rather than too low to deter people claiming lifeline support when they need to.
Perhaps the focus on timescales and the problems with implementing UC has allowed the continuation of a dangerous myth: that the problems facing UC are all about delivery, rather than design.
In the universal credit white paper (pdf), the government argued:
Welfare dependency has become a significant problem in Britain with a huge social and economic cost.” The new benefit will be “leaner” and “firmer”.
The UK has one of the highest rates of children growing up in homes where no one works and this pattern repeats itself through the generations. Less than 60% of lone parents in the UK are in employment, compared to 70% or more in France, Germany and the Netherlands … Universal credit will start to change this. It will reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study that debunked the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012. I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive psychopolitics based on behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune and for failing to factor in political decision-making.
The theory which UC is premised on is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.
However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.
And then there is the fact that in-work poverty is rising. Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, we need to ask why have those “personal failings” only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years.
The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions, but surely, it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by sincerely addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.
It could be argued that unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” to work people are.
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.