Universal Credit: why are we waiting?

Submitted by Matthew on 13 November, 2017 - 9:19 Author: Matthew Thompson
UC protest

Although the Government ultimately ignored the 299-0 House of Commons vote, on which Tory MP's were whipped to abstain, calling for a pause in the national rollout of Universal Credit, parliamentary and media scrutiny continues to focus on the punitive aspects of the policy, especially the six week waiting period before any money is paid to people submitting new claims.

The new benefit has been gradually phased in across the country since 2013. It replaces six existing working age and in-work benefits by combining them into a single one. Numerous reports have hightlighted the extreme hardship being inflicted on people in the initial wait for benefit, with many now forced to rely on friends, family, charities and food banks to meet their basic living needs.

MPs will vote again on Thursday 16 November on a cross-party motion submitted by the Labour chair of the Department for Work and Pensions Select Committee, Frank Field, specifically on the waiting period

Waiting periods have been used in the benefits system throughout the existence of the modern welfare state in Britain, since the early twentieth century. However, before now, these have only been for a few days, and were only for benefits intended to replace wages in case of unemployment or sickness. For much of the post-war period these benefits paralleled conditions of rising pay levels, full employment, trade union organisation of most major industries and widening social provision, especially in housing. Now, in very different general conditions for workers, not only are waiting periods longer, but they are also being imposed on those without the resources which in the past those who became sick or lost their job might just be able to manage before benefits were paid to them.

The waiting period in the new Universal Credit regime represents an extension of the "conditionality" already present in the 2010-15 coalition Government's "welfare reforms", especially in the now abandoned Work Programme, and before that the New Deal introduced by Labour in 1998. From then on the condition attached to benefit entitlement required the unemployed to undertake so-called "work-focussed activity" - i.e. working for your benefits, either for voluntary/charity organisations or private sector employers eager to exploit free labour. Sanctions would be imposed on you if you didn't do that work.

The idea in Universal Credit is that by mimicking the payment of wages in monthly arrears you attune the unemployed and the sick to the rhythms of employment and thus make them more likely to find work. But essentially it means blaming them for the lack of decent, well-paid jobs and the dearth of support for those with disabilities.

With the divisions in the government between those seeking a hard or a soft Brexit widening, not to mention the difficulties besetting the Cabinet as a result of the personal behaviour of ministers, the Tories are on the back foot at Westminster. Surely a determined and sustained drive by Labour can now push them back on this issue much further than even their own few dozen backbench rebels intend.

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