"While the principles behind Universal Credit are sound,” she said, “our evidence shows that if the government continues to take this stubborn approach to the expansion of Universal Credit, it risks pushing thousands of families into a spiral of debt, and placing an even greater strain on public services.”
A pause would not only be sensible for a system with so many problems, there must surely be a moral imperative given it's the most vulnerable who are falling foul of it and literally picking up the tab. But the government shows no signs it’s listening. And the civil servants? Well, from what I've seen over the past 20 years, having their fingers in their ears is pretty much business as usual for policy-makers at the DWP.
I wonder what the point was of those pilots that found 79 per cent of early UC claimants were in arrears by the time they received their first payment. What difference did the evidence make when Croydon Council revealed to the Select Committee that its average wait for rent payments through UC was 12 weeks?
Now Citizens Advice is calling for a pause while the holes in the system are sorted out, if the government still doesn't listen, we have to ask what the Tories have actually learned from the whipping they got at the election, how badly David Cameron called it over the Brexit referendum and the current outcry about the community being ignored in the Grenfell Tower area of West London. All of these are the end result of not listening.
With the hat I wear as director of an employability project, I chair a practitioners’ forum on UC in one of its Full Service areas. We share experiences but focus on finding work arounds to minimise the human cost, (and we’ll share these ideas more widely as we get them down). One local landlord has conducted a survey of their large cohort of UC claimants to see what that fall-out really is – for example, they fear many could be turning to loan sharks.
They also reported that other landlords are moving away from Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs) because of the administrative burden. These are one of the sub-systems DWP talk about when mitigating concerns about UC’s failures for claimants who are unable to manage their monthly rent money coming to them. Incomplete information, delays and complexities around housing element payments having deductions, caps or earnings removed from them and leaving rent unpaid (and owed by the tenant) mean landlords cannot reconcile payments under the new system. APAs have failed to offset the risks of direct payments to people who are most likely to spend the housing element of their benefits before their rent is due. Given vulnerable tenants may be living with substance misuse issues, learning disabilities or debt crisis, we're talking about people seriously likely to fail to keep their rent money safe.
I will be speaking next week at the One Manchester conference on Financial Inclusion, exploring how we can raise aspirations and build resilience. I want to talk about how our prevailing culture faces the opposite way. Brexit, (how it was won or lost, depending on your point of view), Trump, rise of the right in Germany, Grenfell Tower are all examples of where divisive 'us and them' attitudes, often with 'we know what's right for you' paternalism built in, are only counter-productive. We have a long way to go before there is the required trust and respect between communities to even start this process. I will be dwelling on how first, we need to start with engaging and inspiring people. But we have to turn our whole culture around because, right now, it promotes the forces that work against aspiration and resilience in the form of apathy, cynicism and a sense of injustice.
At best, Universal Credit is a perfect example of a programme designed without consulting end users. It assumes all claimants are online (or willing and able to go online), use bank accounts (that are not in hiatus due to being mired in overdraft) or have the ID to hand to open a new account, or have the money management skills to handle large payments coming in and bills, rent, debts and Brighthouse payments due to go out. UC is designed as if claimants have the same lifestyle as Whitehall civil servants.
DWP say it’s claimants’ lifestyles that cause UC to fail. Agencies like Citizens Advice say it’s an unfinished system that is failing claimants. Either way, thousands are living in utter misery. The roll-out should be paused.
I believe there will be a growing call for Government and their administrations to start listening to people at the hard end of what they're doing and the agencies representing them. Until they do, or until they even contemplate why doing so is important, they will continue to find their schemes failing and communities railing against them. Meanwhile, it will be the most vulnerable facing eviction and turning to high interest lenders to make ends meet... while policy makers blame them for the poor choices they make.