Thursday, 12 October 2017

Making Universal Credit Universal

1992, I was on a low income with a family and just started work as a farm labourer. I applied for the then working family orientated benefit, Family Credit. The rules were that you had to submit five weeks of wages slips but, having not worked and therefore no payslips I applied on my first day in work with a letter of confirmation from my boss. The application was approved and from posting off the application form to money in the bank took 3 weeks.

Fast forward to 2017 and for Family Credit, read Universal Credit. In principle this is a master stroke and an improvement on the old fragmented system of benefits. I could never understand why, when someone found themselves in need of state support, the state thought that a person had suddenly lost the ability to manage their finances. Instead of a regular wage you’re hurled into a world where you income is split into various schemes of cash payments and payments in kind such as direct payment of rent to landlords. Universal Credit corrects this and treats claimants as grown-ups. Find yourself with a sudden stop of income and Universal Credit can seamlessly pick up where your wages leave off. But it doesn’t, and that is a bigger problem than I think the Government and the Department of Work and Pensions realise. There is a real risk that something  ground breaking and innovative will be rubbished by an ignorance of bureaucracy and an inexplicable lack if urgency to correct it.

As a parliamentary candidate in 2015 I was often faced with questions about benefits, the system and its failures. More often than not it was a failure of process and not policy. Claimants were being let down my slow handling, inaccurate processing and too much of the ‘computer says no’. This is not the case with Universal Credit. Those in need of it are very likely to have next to no financial resilience built into their affairs. To go without any form of income for over a month can have devastating consequences when most bills are monthly and will therefore go unpaid. Advance payments can be an answer but this is just substituting one crisis for another. Yes you will have money in the bank but with this advance taken from the first payment it’s not dealing with the problem of not income, it’s time shifting it. The recent increase in advance payments is not something to celebrate but an indicator that the mandatory 6 week waiting period for payment is not working.

The answer is right inside the very principle of Universal Credit itself in its intention to replicate a wage. When I started work on the farm in 1992 I was on a weekly wage. At the end of the week I expected to get paid, and I was paid. What worker would start work and tolerate not seeing any payment for six weeks? No worker should tolerate that and, if Universal Credit is supposed to replicate this, neither should a Universal Credit claimant. 

The waiting period needs to be one month from the date of application and preferably synchronised with the payment of a claimant’s working wage so it is a genuine top up payment. Failure to do this will destroy the worthy principles of Universal Credit and bury it so deep in controversy it will never be seen as anything but a failure.

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