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Universal Credit is hardly out of the news. The suffering and anxiety it has caused is immeasurable - so much so that even some Tory MPs have been forced to highlight problems with its implementation. So how did we end up with such a pernicious system?
In 2006, Lord Freud was asked by New Labour prime minister Tony Blair to review the UK's 'welfare-to-work' system. The Daily Telegraph said that Blair had been "impressed by his [Lord Freud's] role in raising finance for Eurotunnel and EuroDisney" while at merchant bank UBS.
Although initially an adviser to New Labour, in 2009 Freud joined the Conservative Party and, in 2010, he became a government minister with responsibility for 'welfare reform'.
Interviewed in 2012, he said his primary concerns were the "nooks and crannies" in the benefits system where people could "sit for long periods without ongoing scrutiny... all kinds of areas where people are able to have a lifestyle off (sic) benefits".
In other words, he had absolutely no interest in helping people out of poverty.
This warped view of life on benefits led to the inclusion in Universal Credit of conditionality and the minimum income floor.
This means that, as a condition of receiving Universal Credit, claimants can be required to increase their earnings. For many, the only option is therefore seeking to increase their hours of employment. But this can be extremely difficult. For example, think of a zero-hour contract worker, with an exclusivity clause limiting them to working for one employer. Under this system, they could essentially be required to look for extra hours and face sanctions if they fail to find them.
If, in desperation, they look to self-employment there still isn't a way out of this Orwellian nightmare. Because, after 24 months self-employment, a claimant can be deemed to be earning the national minimum wage for 35-hours a week - regardless of their actual earnings!
Universal Credit isn't really about 'welfare'. It's naked class warfare. Many of the staff administering Universal Credit are trade union members who loathe the system they work in. PCS union members report that up to 50% of calls they take are from angry, vulnerable and desperate claimants. They want the tools to be able to help, and the strike in Walsall and Wolverhampton Universal Credit sites is as much about this as about anything else.
Low pay in the civil service means that the PCS has estimated that substantial numbers of its members have been forced to use food banks, and many of those working on implementing Universal Credit are themselves able to claim it.
As the PCS has commented: "The government's arrogant refusal to listen to its own staff, experts, charities, those affected, and even its own MPs shows their aim is not to help people but to simply cut support from those who need it most."
Scandalously, in 2015 during the debate on the Welfare and Work Reform Act, which included lowering the benefit cap, acting Labour leader Harriet Harman whipped Labour MPs to abstain on the vote. Only 48 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against the bill. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were among them.
But this shows the problem Corbyn now faces. Most of the pro-austerity MPs, who voted for these punishing anti-working-class measures, remain on Labour's benches. This shows limited support for Corbyn's anti-austerity programme within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The benefits advice service 'Entitled To' calculated that, in 2017, 8.6 million families missed out on the benefit payments they were entitled to claim - to the tune of £20 billion. This has no doubt been exacerbated by the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has cut almost 40,000 jobs since 2010, including thousands who worked in DWP Visiting, whose job it was to help the vulnerable claim benefits.
Despite the attempts of right-wing politicians and the capitalist media to blame poverty on the alleged failings of those who suffer it, unemployment and underemployment are inherent within any economy based on market competition. Overall they are the fault of capitalism, not individual workers.
A new welfare system needs to take this as its starting point. It needs to form part of a programme to replace profit-driven jobs chaos with democratic socialist planning: jobs for all. The Blairites are all too happy to pander to Tory 'benefit scrounger' myths because they defend the capitalist system.
They seek to use such myths to divide and rule - pitting workers who don't currently have to rely on benefits against those who do.
But the truth is the only people who gain from this cruel and brutal benefits system are the employers. After all, the harsher the conditions experienced by those on benefits, the easier it is for employers demand workers accept rock-bottom wages.
A new welfare system must be based on a reasonable standard of living for all claimants. Pro-capitalist politicians may criticise elements of Universal Credit. But they don't criticise the generally derisory level of benefits, exacerbated by the Tories' four-year-long in-work benefits freeze, or the levels of poverty pay that force millions in work to claim benefits.
A new welfare system also has to have adequate administrative resources.
As of 2017, 4,000 DWP staff were employed to work on benefit fraud, compared with 500 HMRC staff investigating the tax affairs of high net worth individuals with assets over £10 million.
PCS is calling for an extra 5,000 staff to be employed and for Universal Credit to be scrapped and replaced.
Funding to advice bureaus, law centres and legal aid must be restored, so claimants can get help to receive their full entitlement.
Most urgently, Labour councils should use their existing financial powers to protect working-class people from losing money because of Universal Credit, ensuring no one is evicted, cold or hungry because of it.
Jeremy Corbyn should promise to reimburse councils which underwrite all Universal Credit losses as soon as a Labour government comes to power. He should call on all Labour councils to take these measures now.
Such an approach could make the system unworkable, hasten the downfall of the Tory government, and prove to working-class voters that Corbyn is serious about fighting for them.
In my work as a welfare rights adviser in north east Derbyshire, I never cease to be appalled by the cruelty, unfairness and downright dysfunctionality of Universal Credit.
Universal Credit is even more of a nightmare if you happen to have a health condition. One of our regular clients who has mental health issues is absolutely terrified of being put on it, despite our reassurances. The stress is making him ill. He has heard the horror stories.
We've seen several cases of people being threatened with eviction because of delays to payments. We've seen vulnerable claimants risking serious debt because their rent is no longer paid directly to their landlord, and the 'extra money' is mistakenly spent. These are all problems the government was warned about time and again.
Delays, randomly applied sanctions, and poor communication between departments in the DWP are all too common. The government has made a few measly concessions. This is to stop the milk from boiling over - to give the impression that the government's listening and, more to the point, to stop people from rebelling.
The Tories are still stubbornly insisting that most people will be better off with Universal Credit, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
This cruelty must stop! No amount of tinkering at the edges will make Universal Credit fair! Jeremy Corbyn must clearly pledge to scrap it should Labour win the next general election. I don't accept that Universal Credit has gone too far to be scrapped. Its replacement needs to have dignity, fairness and compassion for every claimant. No to inhumane sanctions and compulsion to look for non-existent jobs!
A campaign of benefits staff, who mostly loathe the system, claimants, trade unions and others must urgently be built. We also need a mass job creation programme, a £10-an-hour minimum wage and trade union rights for all.
Under capitalism, which cannot provide even the basics of life for millions, Britain's welfare state and, in particular, Universal Credit, has become a stick with which to beat people, instead of a system that assists and supports those who fall on hard times. It's also a warning to workers not to complain or question, otherwise this is what you can expect if you're unlucky enough to lose your job!
We deserve better than a welfare system that tries to browbeat us into submission.
Join the Socialist Party to campaign for change!
There is serious discontent about how Universal Credit is being run. Cuts to staff have resulted in the DWP trying to roll out two new national benefits, Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment, with almost 40,000 fewer workers than in 2010. There has been an explosion of claimants falling through the cracks.
Universal Credit claimants are set to more than double over the next twelve months. More than a million extra claimants will be subject to the full force of Tory cuts, which is estimated to cost working families £2,300 a year, and which will have a major impact on those with illness and disabilities. Many could lose hundreds of pounds a month.
Socialist Party members in civil servants' union PCS believe that the fightback by workers in the benefit system is intrinsically linked to the struggles of workers claiming benefits. Tory austerity has hit us all together. Union members in the DWP want to be able to deliver a universal social security system, a quality public service that ensures all those in need have enough to live.
In November 2018, the Tories announced a delay in moving claimants from existing benefits to Universal Credit as a result of negotiation and campaigning by the PCS union and other campaign groups.
In January 2019, the government stopped people in receipt of Severe Disability Premium being moved to Universal Credit after pressure from both the PCS and campaigners.
Hundreds of PCS members working as Disability Employment Advisers in Jobcentres had notified the union about the plight of these extremely vulnerable claimants. Socialists in PCS are fighting for everyone else to have their Severe Disability Premium reinstated and backdated.
The unions and the Trades Union Congress have failed to organise action against austerity. This has not gone unnoticed by the tens of thousands of union members in PCS or by millions of claimants.
A strike in several Universal Credit processing sites, with every possibility of growing into a national strike of Universal Credit workers, is an opportunity to demand changes that will help both DWP workers and claimants.
PCS and claimants' groups, including Unite Community and Disabled People Against Cuts need to work together. Over 10,000 DWP staff will themselves be Universal Credit claimants because of low pay and face income cuts.
On 11-12 March, workers at DWP offices in Wolverhampton and Walsall struck over the excessive workloads being created by the introduction of Universal Credit.
The PCS civil service union is calling for an additional 5,000 jobs to be created nationwide to deal with the current backlog, and an end to the rampant use of short-term contracts.
Socialist Party members were on the picket line with them. 15 strikers gathered outside the Wolverhampton office, in spite of senior management standing on the gate to tempt people in with promises of chocolate and pizza!
On the picket, there were reports of workers being forced to go back on the phones despite being signed off taking calls due to poor health (made worse by the unmanageable call volume in the first place!). One worker commented: "I've been in the sector for over 30 years and whenever the government tries to simplify anything, it ends up in a mess".
Meanwhile in Walsall over 20 turned out in what one activist described as the biggest turnout he'd seen on a picket in 15 years working there.
Members were looking forward to the prospect of more workplaces joining the action, and linking it up with the union's campaign for a living pay increase of 10% to combat the chronic low pay in the civil service.
The Socialist Party will continue to work to link up claimants with those workers on the other end of the phone lines to build a campaign to defeat this and the rest of the Tories' vicious attacks on the working class.
Child poverty (41)
Article dated 13 March 2019
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
Lessons from history
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