In the end, just one Tory MP, Sarah Wollaston, the Chair of the Health Select Committee who has rebelled on a number of issues in the past, including Europe and Syria, defied the whips and voted with Labour when it came to the motion put down for an Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons calling upon the Government to pause the roll-out across the countryof its controversial new benefit Universal Credit, rather than abstaining as she and her colleagues had been instructed to do by them, but despite ministers pointing out the non-binding nature of the 299-0 result, political problems for a Cabinet already beset by the ongoing, and seemingly stalled, Brexit negotiations in Brussels are clearly far from behind them on this question whose many problems are now coming to light.
Although Universal Credit has been trialled in pilot areas since 2013, at first mostly in the North West of England, the media as a whole, rather than just Channel 4’s Dispatches and The Guardian, has only now picked up on its impact as the so-called “full service” model which includes all new claimants – single mothers in part-time work, couples on low incomes, those with disabilities now receiving Employment and Support Allowance or Working Tax Credit – rather than the easier to process claims of unemployed single people without dependents, who were first to be included in the initial trials, goes live in dozens of districts.
There is absolutely no reason, apart from wanting to cause unnecessary suffering, for there to be such a long lead-time for claims to get paid. It makes no sense in reason or logic for benefit to be paid from any date other than the first date of unemployment. But it gets worse.
Citizens Advice Bureau reports that 39% are waiting for longer than six weeks, 11% are waiting over 10 weeks without benefit, and 57% of claimants are having to borrow money to make ends meet. In addition, members of the civil service union PCS report that understaffing has resulted in 20% of all calls to the service not being answered every week. The private sector company, Serco, which has been contracted to support DWP with organising new claims appointments, has been such an abject failure that DWP staff are now having to help out Serco, unable to deal with the workload.
The principle of one universal benefit, encompassing unemployment, housing, council tax, tax credits and other benefits previously administered by different departments and authorities, is not inherently bad.
It is to be welcomed that the combined pressure of unions, the Labour party, charities and community organisations has resulted in the government withdrawing the obscene 55p/minute charge for using the Universal Credit helpline. However, the brunt of the proposals still remain. The shamefully low level of benefit is a huge issue too. Many claimants are forced to pay the housing credit portion of their claim on staving off hunger or ensuring that they have heating, water and electricity; that too results in evictions. None of this helps people get into work.
So could this be a “poll tax moment” for the May government much like the one which, beginning with its introduction in 1988-89, ultimately led to the political demise of the then Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher a year later?
Much of the attention has focussed on the initial six-week waiting period before any payment is made, a supposedly working for wages-mimicing provision akin to the monthly rather than weekly or fortnightly benefit cycle, with TV crews interviewing Universal Credit claimants as they queue up at food banks or at home in the houses and flats from which, having built up substantial rent arrears, they are now threatened with eviction by either their social or private landlords.
Having made a series of U-turns on similar issues before, from the “pasty tax” in George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget of 2012 to proposed cuts in tax credits in 2015 and the so-called “dementia tax” in this year’s Tory manifesto, and having lost their Parliamentary majority in the subsequent General Election, the Tories must surely be vulnerable to both a backbench rebellion on the issue on their own side and a sustained campaign by Labour on ours.
Whether or not this proves to be the decisive moment which ends May’s premiership – and the circles of Tory plotters who are still sharpening their knives over her handling of Brexit may yet mean that she doesn’t survive long enough for it to become so – we should ensure that not only is the roll-out of this benefit, which will lead to further impoverishment for millions of already poor people, paused as the Oppostion Day motion demanded, but scrapped and replaced by a more humane system of supporting those without sufficient money to live on, whether because of unemployment, disability or precarious and part-time jobs.
As a minimum we demand an end to conditionality, an uprating of the total amount of benefit to the full-time Living Wage and for benefit eligibility to start on the first day of unemployment. In addition, the government should reverse its office closure programme, allowing vulnerable people local and accessible access to social security advice and saving hundreds of civil service jobs.