The highly scrutinised Universal Credit policy being steered through by Work and Pensions Minister Iain Duncan Smith is ideological, not practical; surprising since this is being dubbed the ‘Flagship Reform’ by the ever-pragmatic Tories. The general principle behind the idea is sound. Simplifying the bureaucracy of the benefits system is essential since on average £1 million pounds of government revenue is lost daily thanks to benefit errors and fraudulent claims, which amounts to a total of £30 billion a year. With the deficit still standing at £96.1 billion at the most recent official count, any policies that tie up loose ends and loopholes of government expenditure which aren’t going towards helping those in need, are worth considering. Also, the notion of encouraging money management to prepare those on benefits for a return to the workplace and a life with wages and without benefits will help contribute to getting people off the payroll and back on their feet in the long run. Therefore the concept of universal credit is commendable, however there are some serious practicality issues in the policy itself. Enough has been said about the disastrous implementation Duncan Smith has overseen, but less has been said to scrutinise the scheme itself rather than its management, and the genuine flaws that exists within.
One major issue with the policy is that computer literacy and regular access is required in order to make benefit claims, and then to check payments and organise budgets. It appears completely lost on the Right Honourable Minister that not everyone on benefits are computer literate, much less literate at all and therefore will be excluded by this reform. It is also overlooked that far from all benefit claimants can afford a computer, or enjoy the luxury of regular access to one. The weak response from the Work and Pensions Ministry is that those without computers must attend their local library. Mr Duncan Smith has emphasised the role of budgeting as one of utmost importance in this policy, yet the budget organisation takes place online, therefore whenever a claimant needs to check, organise and manage their payments, they must have access to a computer. In the absence of possession, they will have to incur the additional cost of travelling to and from their ‘local library’, not to mention the fact that libraries are declining nationally and losing funding. Also, is it not degrading and insecure to force people to oversee their benefit payments in a public setting? The stigmatisation against those on benefit payments has already been compounded recently by the infamous Benefits Street, and forcing those who can’t afford a computer to manage their benefits in public places them at greater risk of receiving discrimination and suffering from stigmatisation. The Work and Pensions Department claim that as an alternative to the local library, local councils and jobcentres ‘might’ be able to help. Oh ‘might’ they? Very reassuring.
Aforementioned are the micro-scale computer issues, but on the macro-scale, serious questions have been raised over the capability of the IT system to cope with the millions of claims. Obamacare in America is a key example of a policy that is ideologically commendable (more so than Universal Credit no doubt), yet practicality issues have hindered its success. In that case, Americans up and down the country were faced with server freezes, IT failures, glitches, and an inability to access the system. This has discredited the project in the eyes of many Americans who believed in its intentions, and Universal Credit faces the same risks in the UK. The National Audit Office has already reported that technological glitches have hindered the national introduction of the scheme. There are further intricacies and practical nuances that cripple the policy, for example the stipulation that if two partners each receive benefits then these payments will be merged into a single household benefit. This creates a risk by assuming every domestic situation is the same, and places a lot of faith in the family unit, and neglects the fact that studies have shown a correlation between unemployment and domestic violence, which could extend to the hoarding of household benefit payments by one partner and the exploitation of another, who remains economically trapped in the relationship due to their unemployment. This may seem an extreme example, but is a very real possibility and not an uncommon scenario in households stricken by unemployment; therefore this stipulation of the universal credit scheme puts claimants at risk, and requires reconsideration.
There is also the issue that by simplifying the welfare payments system, those with complex payments lose out. A prime example would be a citizen with disabilities who chooses to work part-time. The welfare package of such an individual is complicated, as they are due disability benefits, yet their overall payments are reduced due to their ability to work-part time. Special considerations for such cases are overlooked by a system which groups all payments together. Another example would be a mother who chooses to work part-time. The Universal Credit scheme stipulates that people working over 16 hours a week must progress in employment and work more hours or face reduced payments. While IDS claims the scheme is committed to not reducing benefits for care-givers, his department concedes that individual cases such as the aforementioned examples will be at the discretion of Job Centre advisors, yet has refused to detail how advisor decisions will be made. Therefore another risk of the policy is that people in genuine need will slip through the net. Supporting this is the analysis of the Children’s Society which reveals ‘100,000 of the UK’s poorest families stand to lose as much as £4,000 a year in childcare support’.
To sum up, Universal Credit is admirable, but a closer inspection reveals some genuine policy faults that one can only hope will be addressed by select committees before full implementation. The scheme and its pitfalls also reveal something about the historically anti-ideology Conservative Party. On this occasion, it is the Tories who have allowed ideology to blind them to the impracticalities of their proposed policies. A truly interesting development, indeed.