Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The real problem with Universal Credit

The problems with Universal Credit are not the result of 8 years of ‘austerity’ - though they have undoubtedly been made worse by significant cuts in the budget which have yet to be fully restored.  Instead the hardships caused - the poverty, debt and homelessness -  are a culmination of a series of attempts by governments of all persuasions to bring about a profound change to our society.  Universal Credit is part of a set of policies which, as the recent United Nations report on poverty in the UK concluded are a result of “a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering”.

Pressure to make changes to the processes involved in claiming Universal Credit are gaining support - the latest being a campaign now being waged by The Sun newspaper (a development which shows how bad things have become).  But whatever the problems identified by journalists, claimants and charities, the government has one response:  Universal Credit is designed to “help people back into work”. 

It is this common response which indicates that the problem with Universal Credit is not the detail of how the system works - however valid the criticisms are - it is with the ideology which drives it.

This ideology is simple but has devastating consequences: Universal Credit is the result of a set of beliefs that insist that individuals can only rely on themselves and their family for support; and that it is only paid employment which will provide the necessities for survival.  What this means is that the concept of social security has no place within what our welfare benefits system has become.  Our government has dispensed with the idea of a society where everyone has the security of knowing that, if they are unable to get the resources they need for survival themselves, then the collective resources of our society will step in to provide a safety net.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than reports that some people who are terminally ill are expected to go for an interview with a Work Coach as part of their application for a benefit which they need precisely because they are ill and not able to work.

The fundamental problem is that - over a number of years - the welfare benefits system has been reconfigured in such a way that it is no longer designed to recognise an inability to work. It is no longer designed to recognise illness or any of the other barriers to employment, such as employer discrimination, inappropriate working conditions or lack of suitable local employment.  Instead it is designed to ensure that people do their utmost to get paid employment and to work enough hours to take them out of qualifying for benefits - regardless of how sick they are or what barriers they may experience over which they have no control.  

It is also designed to encourage people to establish their own safety net - to bring home to us all that we cannot rely on the collective resources of our society to ensure that we have enough to live on if we are unlucky enough to lose our job or get ill. (1)  

Government policy is being driven by the assumption that there are only two places that people can look to in order to get the necessities for survival: the private world of the family; and the public world of the labour market.  Moreover, promulgation of this value system did not start in 2010.  Governments have - to a greater or lesser extent - been promoting such ideas since the late 1970s.  The State has gradually divested itself of any responsibility for ensuring employment opportunities (the ‘full employment’ policies of the post-war period) replacing it with the individual’s responsibility to compete in the labour market.  Out-of-work and sickness and disability benefits are no longer underpinned by the intention of providing a safety net for those who cannot, for whatever reason, get the necessities for survival through paid employment.  Instead what was a ‘social security’ system has been turned into a system whose sole intention is to act as an incentive for individuals to sell their labour.

However, although this ‘welfare’ system is intended to emphasise individual responsibilities and discourage so-called ‘dependency’, the processes by which the individual looks to the State for help are also intended to take away individual agency (2).  If you apply for Universal Credit (or for its predecessor ESA), it is not you - or even your doctor - who defines whether you are able to work.  Instead, it is the State, using assessments carried out by a private company (currently Maximus), which determines your ability to work. 

Universal Credit, and its accompanying conditionality, takes away an individual’s ability to define what their best interests are. Once a person has no resources of their own, or a family to support them, their ability to define how an illness and/ or impairment affects their day to day life is taken away.  An individual’s ability to define their own reality is instead replaced by features of the current benefit system which are intended to ‘incentivise’ people into employment by the threat of destitution if they fail to comply with the conditions applied.   An individual’s reality is replaced with the mantra that ‘work is good for health and well-being’ (a piece of magical thinking which I discussed in an earlier blogpost) - an insistence which fails to acknowledge the elements of the modern labour market which are in fact bad for health and well-being (and which were acknowledged by the very review of evidence on which the government commonly relies).  

While tinkering with the current system may alleviate some of the misery it causes, this will always be limited by its key feature of using the threat of destitution to drive people into the labour market. And a refusal to recognise where sickness and impairment, together with the characteristics of the labour market, make employment at a living wage impossible means that increasing numbers of people fall into destitution.  

Both the Scottish government and the Labour Party are looking at alternative, rights-based forms of social security. The Labour Party recently heard from disability activists about the kind of principles that could deliver a more empowering assessment framework to replace the current Work Capability Assessment as well as how any new system must aim to protect and promote human rights.  Such discussions are welcome, driven as they are by a recognition that tinkering with the current system of Universal Credit will not address the real problem we face - the years-long attempts by Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments of the undermining of the very concept of social security.  It is that word ‘security’ which we all need our collective resources to deliver.

  1. Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of Universal Credit, argued that government should be supporting a policy such as Singapore’s Fortune Account, saving accounts for individuals to draw on as required to fund their own sick pay or unemployment benefits, an idea that was first floated by the Adam Smith Institute in1995.  These ideas have not yet come onto the mainstream policy agenda but they are made more likely by the radical restructuring of the welfare state, of which Universal Credit is only the latest stage.
  2. See Chapter 7 of In-validating disability: changing labour markets and out of work disability benefits. PhD thesis by Rosa Morris [full disclosure - my daughter].