For a few months last year I found myself having to claim dole. I filled in the forms online and went in for my appointment. According to the wise gurus at the DWP I was qualified to get jobseeker’s allowance, which I did get and so I kept up my job search and attended all the appointments asked of me in order to ensure I stayed in receipt of it. It was my first spell of unemployment in 20 years and it was a strange feeling having to go to the same old dole office in the wrong part of town. Nothing had changed in all that time, so it seemed, and the office itself still had a tense feel to it, like a nearby claimant could explode at any time over their latest sanction. But that’s why several burly men from G4S were close by. Actually no, things were different, and not for the better.
After a couple of months of this I had the chance of a mere four days’ work down south, and coinciding with a signing on day, I knew I had to tell them, so I did. Then a few days later I was back, and went to sign on again. However this time I was shunted onto a different mechanism, one called Universal Credit. I sighed and accepted my fate – and then realised that I wouldn’t actually get any money for at least a month. I complained, and explained my circumstances, but all to no avail; I was going to be put on UC because my home town was in a trial area for it before everyone else was lucky enough to be blessed with it and that was that. I was told I could apply for a loan (£128) to cover the long wait for benefits. Wow, thanks. You’re too generous. As soon as I could I signed off. Anything was better than being a prospective long-termer under that system, and given the paucity of proper employment around my area, the long term was a realistic and unwanted prospect. (In the 16 months since I registered with seven employment agencies in my home town, at least four have now closed down.)
So what is universal credit? According to government it’s a ‘flagship welfare reform’, which in real English means it’s going to be an utter disaster. All the ingredients for this easily avoided catastrophe are in place, but of course that mean the Tories would have to listen – and care.
In essence UC is the bundling together of six existing benefits into a single monthly payment, currently received by 530,000 people in various trial areas. However roll-out across the rest of the country is almost upon us, when UC due spreads like an infection to a further fifty new areas. And with more people set to fall under its shadow, the month’s wait that I had to go through has been lengthened by at least two more weeks. Real hardship is about to get very real indeed.
In addition to the delays in processing, there is concern in the case of those in private housing that the payments are going directly to the claimant and not the landlord (it replaces housing benefit). This concern has been voiced for months, and yet still the Tories do nothing. In fact the only changes made to UC are for the worse: the work allowance section of UC was going to mean that claimants can work in their badly paid jobs but keep a chunk of their UC to make sure it pays better than being on benefits; however that chunk has now been cut and cut again, and frontline politicians are calling for UC to be rethought before it’s too late. Bob Kerslake, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, said there was “enough evidence about the problems of arrears, particularly for some very vulnerable groups, that makes it essential that these issues are addressed before the roll-out continues”.
But the Tories being the Tories it’ll be like the poll tax all over again, where voices are ignored, heads are buried in the sand and the worst off in our desperate, flailing society will be consigned even deeper poverty. It’s not like the government haven’t been told and time and again that there’s genuine concern with this new system. The Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest food bank network, has brought to the attention of government that in some cases people are having to wait 13 weeks for their UC to come through. How is that acceptable? Make no mistake, people are to going starve and people are going to lose their homes as this government, one that is particularly hard of hearing when it comes to looking after the worst off in our society, brush off the criticism. I fully expect there to be a U-turn, but it’ll be only months or years down the line when hundreds of thousands of people have already been pushed beyond their limits. And then the government will claim they listen to the people.
Nick Macpherson, a former permanent secretary at the Treasury, said: “I still worry about housing support being paid straight to the recipient rather than the landlord, and I question the prioritisation of pensioner benefits over working-age benefits: universal credit is insufficiently generous to provide genuine income support to the poor and workless.”
I was also thinking of that six-week wait for your money. I have read that this is supposed to discourage short-term claims and to make people save enough to get them through that difficult transitionary period. The fact that many people cannot save enough to last them that time because of low wages, zero-hour contracts and/or poor health is completely ignored by the DWP. I dare say Iain Duncan Smith has some input with this. According to the Trussell Trust; Almost half of households reported their incomes were unsteady from week-to-week and month-to-month. 78% are severely food insecure (meaning they had skipped meals and gone without eating) – sometimes for days at a time, while over half could not afford heating or toiletries. 3 in 5 households had experienced rising or unexpected expenses, with 25% of these saying higher food expenses were to blame, confirming the impact of food inflation on squeezed budgets. 1 in 3 households were finding it difficult to make minimum monthly repayments on outstanding loans, and nearly 1 in 5 in debt owed money to payday lenders.
Here’s some statistics from those areas where UC has been trialled: Three councils whose tenants have already been moved on to universal credit said they had built up about £8m in rent arrears. The London boroughs of Croydon, Hounslow and Southwark said that over 2,500 tenants claiming UC were now at risk of eviction. Some food banks reported that marriages have broken down as a result of pressure thanks to delayed payments, while some landlords are inevitably choosing not to accept tenants on universal credit.
Figures obtained by the Observer under 'FoI' indicate that half of all council tenants across 105 local authorities who receive the housing element of universal credit are at least a month behind on their rent, with 30% two months behind. Contrast that with the news that less than 10% of council tenants on housing benefit are a month behind on their rent, with under 5% running more than two months behind.
It’s never too late for our spineless government to take heed of the catastrophe that is going to envelop those with next to nothing. Families will be evicted, homelessness will grow, and people will go hungry. But the Tories will never consider this a bad thing; instead they’ll wage their class war with all the strength they can muster, once they stop fighting among themselves long enough to care. But it’s not all bad. I’m sure when the poor have been forced out of their homes, some young, aspirational professionals can move in. After all, who wants to live next to scroungers?
One aspect of UC that I have yet to see reported in the media is what happens when you want to come off it, when you actually find a job that entails no more UC.
This happened to me in September of last year, and shows just how mean and desperate the Tories are. I rang up the number given to me to tell them I wanted to end my claim. (Actually, I tried to do it from the dole office initially, but the whole system was down so I was told to wait 24 hours; what they don’t tell you about are the technical issues that plague the UC system, and which only delays things even more. And never forget that the whole thing is based around computer access, which not everyone has.) I was told that because I was ending my claim midway through a ‘cycle’ (which is four weeks long), I would not get paid for that cycle. I was two weeks into one of these cycles. And it didn’t matter that I’d attended appointments in that time and kept my job search up to scratch; all that mattered was the fact I wanted to sign off, to get away from such a horrendous monstrosity. And here was the final ignominy – being told that I was trying to sign off too early and therefore I must be punished. I shook my head. I was now prepared to believe the government would do anything to you if you were unemployed, even stick the knife in and twist it as you sought to escape. “But you want to leave the system without saying goodbye,” they seemed to be saying, “and so you forfeit your last chunk of money. Now go away.”
And so away I went. I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve struggled with self-employment ever since, but there’s no way I intend to go back to that and everything that goes with it. Perhaps that’s the point: shame you into seeing just how badly they can mistreat you, hoping that you stay away, keep off the figures, avoid being a statistic, save them some money by your being an Orwellian non-person. In short, make sure you’ve stopped counting. But with UC about to be coughed up phlegm-like over a much larger area, you can be sure the heartache, grinding poverty and nerve-wrecking delays are only just beginning. It’s the Tory way. It was always the Tory way.
Ladies and gentlemen: I give you universal credit, because to government, poverty is a nothing more than a personal failing.
Max Webster is the editor of Political Provocteur