The problem from the start was that Universal Credit was founded on a mountain of false assumptions. Arguably, the biggest misapprehension was that it would be okay to roll the new system out before it was properly tested and amend policy and delivery on the hoof.
Imagine a big business launching a new product for all its customers that way. Even Samsung, who have not covered themselves with glory on new releases in recent years, never said all their customers would have to use these combustible new widgets in the next five years.
At Quids in!, our response had been ardently pragmatic. It’s not our job to make UC work but our mission is to help low income households stretch and grow their finances. We have, therefore, a de facto responsibility to help claimants make UC work for them. We know the system is often a total mismatch with their lifestyles but one way to make them fit is to help claimants prepare a bit better.
We’ve set out our 3 Bs agenda: By sorting out their banking, budgeting and by being online, they can avoid a number of the pitfalls. Working with stakeholders like landlords and local authorities, we can even attempt to help them plan ahead, although many still only take the changes seriously once their benefit payments dry up.
These turbulent political times are the gift that keeps giving for the DWP. Without them, the campaigns against UC would be relentless, drawing oxygen from front pages eager for headlines. But campaigners calling for UC to be scrapped altogether are also at risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Our pragmatic approach aligns us with each side as much as it puts us at odds with them. Let’s just focus on the end game: Low income households better off and more able to provide for their families.
Even sceptics must accept some principles of the system are sound. Giving people autonomy and control over their money, like not having their rent paid for them, is a social justice issue. It’s one where much ground has been gained in recent years, such as with the personal budget agenda for disabled people.
Keeping more of what you earn, while transitioning off benefits is something I’ve personally seen work for jobseekers who previously said, ‘Why would I do a day’s work and end up a few quid better off?’ There are lots of good reasons, I know, but the arguments at best seem unrealistic, at worst stink of privilege, to people who are struggling to keep food on the table.
To listen to the complaints, you’d think that the old system was a jewel in the crown of social justice. It needed overhauling to reflect modern lifestyles and working patterns. While one major false assumption by designers was that making it digital by default wouldn’t cause any problems, can we imagine today an alternative that isn’t mostly managed online?
Similarly, the idea that claimants would of course be financially included, replete with savings to fall back on and bank accounts to manage electronic payments in and direct debits out, exposes the bubble within which the architects reside.
Linked to these issues are people’s lack of ID paperwork. It’s as if the planners presumed everyone had a passport or driving licence just like they do! They don’t. And if the claimant has moved around a bit, tracking and providing proof of previous addresses feels nigh on impossible. Let’s not forget one trigger of UC can be moving home.
One of the things we learnt early on at Quids in! was there is not much appetite among people on the sharp end of these things for campaigns. What they want is for things to work here and to work now. It can also be self-defeating to highlight the shortcomings of UC. Either waiting for things to go back to the old days or hoping UC will be perfected before rolling out further are pretty futile. I can’t even help thinking that any election-winning promises to ditch it will only result in a cosmetic change and no difference to the fundamental principles of a one-size fits all, digital system dependent on modern banking facilities and good budgeting skills.
We have recently been working with partners in Scotland. There are some interesting variations to how UC is administrated there under the banner of ‘Scottish Choices’. Claimants there can opt to split monthly payments and receive two per payment period. They also have the right to choose for their landlord to receive the housing element of their benefit direct. It will be interesting to see if this impacts the numbers drifting into debt.
The Quids in! Guide to Universal Credit has now shifted some 250,000 copies and its 10th edition goes to print this week. We’ve added reminders of the differences in Scotland and we expect a few questions to be asked in England and Wales about why these options are not available south of the border.
As UC is here to stay, in one form or another, the Guide is as relevant now as it ever was. Of course, we’d love it to be in the hands of all 8.5 million future claimants so they can plan ahead and get the things in place to avoid the numerous pitfalls. Even if UC is replaced, the fundamental principles of knowing more is coming in than going out, of making use of modern financial services and of being online will, from hereon, be key tenets of civic participation. For anyone who wants to receive welfare benefits at least.