At the 2013 Crisis conference shortly after Bottrill’s death, Don Foster MP dodged questions on it saying he’d wait until more was known about the background. Now it is:
Bottrill had been suffering from depression and stress for the past 20 years. That doesn’t make it a special case that’s somehow okay, then. It still should never have happened.
But if you thought the Bedroom Tax screwed up people's lives, just wait for Universal Credit.
In itself, UC is not designed to make people worse off, the cuts have been implemented through the various benefits that UC will encompass. In fact, it promises to make claimants better off if they do their bit and start finding work (even part-time). It attempts to tackle the benefits trap.
But nor is UC about jobseekers. UC delivers austerity to low income, ‘hard-working families’, the ‘deserving poor' that politicians claim to stand shoulder to shoulder with.
Its tortuously slow introduction and roll out has enabled DWP to maintain a narrative that ‘there’s nothing to worry about here’.
But there is very much to worry about here.
Firstly, it’s built on a false assumption that claimants will access the new system online but as many as 60% of C2DE social groups are thought not to be online, (see Let Them Eat Broadband blog). Even the DWP’s own calculations are based on the numbers of people with smart phones and by way of comparison, I wonder how many civil servants fill out their tax returns on a phone?
Secondly, evidence is emerging that claimants are waiting six or more weeks to receive their first payment. And then it is only four weeks’ money. And that’s in arrears. Bear in mind, only ‘simple’ claims have mainly been made through UC, where claimants don’t have a range of benefits and can presumably rely on parents or partners to at least keep a roof over their head. UC will eventually cover everyone on working age benefits, so anyone claiming Housing Benefit, JSA, ESA, Income Support, and Working and Child Tax Credits. How will hard-pressed families cope?
Thirdly, direct payments will prove a huge challenge for people on the breadline. Keeping bills and rent money safe, when only just able to make ends meet, is an almost impossible ask. Just 48% of Quids in! readers use a bank account. All stakeholders need to signpost appropriate financial services and educate claimants about direct debits or jam jar accounts. Money management skills, especially budgeting, need to be championed. Materials should accompany rent statements. Benefits Street should be canned and its slot on TV schedules should be filled with content to help people manage. It has to be accessible – maybe it should replace Bake Off.
We’re hearing that the vast majority of UC claimants with a tenancy are falling straight into rent arrears. Over the past couple of years, the Social Publishing Project team has learnt to watch these small-scale indicators carefully. They almost always predict what will happen in future
Research is ‘revealing’ the poorest are the most vulnerable to cuts. But that’s kind of tautology. But the poorest are equally vulnerable to change. And a change to direct, monthly payments, in arrears, managed online and taking six weeks to process is something to be worried about.
It’s not a huge leap to imagine Stephanie Bottrill was on benefits because of her mental ill-health. There are millions like that, dependent on Housing Benefit, whose home is a fortress keeping them safe. A fear of eviction or poverty would knock most people for six. The only surprising element of Bottrill’s story is that hundreds more haven’t followed her to the grave. As far as we know.
UC will reach further than the Bedroom Tax ever did. And it will hit so-called ‘hard-working’ families, so maybe this will be a game-changer in the discourse around austerity.