But first things first: I’m no apologist for UC. Like many social enterprises, the Social Publishing Project and our sister initiative Clean Slate Training & Employment come from the ground up. They don't moan but recognise how urgently people in poverty need practical help.
We know Universal Credit is flawed and we feed into the various procedures for its ongoing refinement. But there are many ways we can help claimants avoid some of the pitfalls, or the worst of them, right now. Anyone who thinks we should divert our energies to obstruct UC instead is coming from a position of privilege and doesn't recognise (a) the hardship it's creating and (b) the opportunities to do something about it.
I delivered our latest presentation to the Northern Housing Consortium/ North East Child Poverty Action Group meeting last week in Sunderland. Before I started I said I needed to manage their expectations: This may well raise more questions than answers. But like the best advice to claimants, sometimes it's the knowing what questions to ask that matters most.
I was presenting on our recent briefing, 10 Critical Insights on UC – a claimants perspective, (more here). I ran through the gaps in provision created by UC and how it's a poor fit with the needs of claimants because of its assumptions about how people live their lives. Essentially, benefits have been modernised assuming claimants lead modern lives, connected to the internet, in the habit of using a bank and all its facilities, and willing and able to speak up when things aren't right. After all, UC is all about giving claimants responsibility – a laudable, progressive ambition, right?
I was challenged at the end of the presentation about promoting UC. (This was in the context of local jobcentre staff in the North East advising claimants to migrate early as 'it was coming anyway'. But then disabled people and others who lose under UC were finding themselves out of pocket before they needed to.) I often worry about being called an apologist for government programmes. One time in Croydon, a (Labour councillor) supporter of our Quids in! Guide to UC (for claimants) turned on me after I said, 'Let's face it, if no-one is going to help people, we need to give people the means to help themselves.' To which I was told: 'The government couldn't have said that better themselves.'
Social enterprise is almost by definition pragmatic. It is also politically awkward for both left and right because it provides a business (albeit not-for-profit) response to a social crisis. My 15 or so years at The Big Issue taught me how there is more to be done than standing at the sidelines campaigning, which is why I went on to develop an employment support project that made paid work central to it. And it's why Quids in! is constantly finding new opportunities to first understand the problem, (poverty, welfare reform, unemployment, debt, etc), then find ways to intervene with information on the practical action people can take for themselves.
We will be redesigning our New Tenants Guide this year. We have recognised the unique opportunity to engage claimants in preparing for UC up to a year before they migrate onto it. For many (but not all), a house move will trigger a UC claim, taking them off legacy benefits, so we should all be using housing registers and similar facilities to get information out about UC. For us, this would include information on the triple-threat 3 Bs (banking, budgeting and being online).
At this point workshops should be on offer like the money skills programmes we're rolling out, redesigned for prospective new tenants and incentivised with information on the free stuff new householders can take advantage of. Our New Tenants Guide will include early information to ensure claimants are thinking ahead to UC, saving if they can, building a personal foodbank to cope with a month plus of 'incomelessness', and getting themselves banked, online and confident they'll have more coming in than going out. In other words, able to pass a housing affordability test.
At the risk of making our agenda too big to contemplate, our 10 Critical Insights serve to highlight how the lifestyles of the most vulnerable have a long way to come before they are as modern, and in a way 'compliant', with the newly modern benefits system. It also starts to take responsibility out of the DWP's hands and into, not only tenants', but all of our hands. I’m not saying the problems with UC are the claimants’ fault. Policy-makers should be ensuring everyone is able to thrive in a modern world. But then again, UC is their response. It’s designed to force people to get with the programme.
Our work has never been so vital. For Quids in!, our magazine, our training and our professional services, that's about sharing accessible information not just about money skills but how to modernise lifestyles so people don’t lose out. It means working ever-closer with landlords, authorities and support agencies to get the messages out about pragmatic responses, not solutions. And not apologies.