A national day of action against Universal Credit on 1 August may be a chance to revive this campaigning and to put forward the kind of welfare system that is needed.
After apparently being held back since November 2017, a joint report by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and HMRC has shown the government has been well aware of the problems associated with the transition from tax credits to Universal Credit. More than 50% of the claimants surveyed were not prepared for the delay of six weeks till their first payment and of those who expected some delay almost half were unaware it was six weeks.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, quoted in the Guardian, said: “This isn’t a surprise to us, despite the data being a few years old. This tallies with experiences of the people we’ve helped who have struggled financially when they’ve been moved on to Universal Credit.
“While the government has made some changes to support people moving on to Universal Credit since this research, these do not go far enough. Half of the people we help while waiting for their initial payment are unable to keep up with bills or rent.”
A report published on 8 March by NHS providers made stark warnings about the impact of benefit changes on already strained mental health services. “92% of trusts tell us that changes to Universal Credit and benefits are increasing demand for services, as are loneliness, homelessness and wider deprivation. Cuts to services funded by local authorities also mean that preventative approaches and early intervention services are less available.”
At present, campaigns even against the worst elements of Universal Credit are not widespread.
The Labour Party, while coming out in favour of something like a “stop and scrap” policy in more recent months, has not put many resources into street campaigning.
The small print
By a DWP worker
Almost everyone’s heard of Universal Credit, and most people think that in one way or another, it doesn’t work.
Many have heard of sanctions and five week waits for payments, of the "rape clause" or of people disabled by cancer being declared fit for work. They went to see ‘I, Daniel Blake’, and felt cheered when Corbyn voted against the government’s welfare legislation during his first leadership election campaign.
Some of these problems are specific to Universal Credit, yet many of them aren’t. And, horrific as the headline issues are, they only tell part of the story.
I was first motivated to write notes about life at the jobcentre for claimants and workers when we covered domestic violence during my training to become a work coach (previously known as job advisers).
When a claimant is unable to look for work due to one of a particular range of circumstances, such as bereavement, domestic violence, treatment for addiction, etc., the default requirement to be available and looking for work can be waived. For victims of domestic violence, they cannot be asked to look for work for at least three months, at least six months if there is a child involved.
But reading the small print of the guidance, there is a huge caveat. This only applies if the victim is no longer actually suffering from domestic abuse.
If you’re in the midst of domestic abuse, trying to extricate yourself, the DWP has no obligation to refrain from demanding you search for and take up employment, under pain of high level sanctions.
In practice, the vast majority of staff are reasonable human beings who likely aren’t aware that’s policy, so probably few act in line with it.
But combined with the fact that in general payments are paid to a single member of a household, invariably more likely to be the man, it is yet another way in which DWP policy can help lock people in abusive relationships. (To mitigate this problem, Amber Rudd has recently announced that Universal Credit payments will be made to the primary carer of the children).
That the clause can be official DWP policy, buried in the guidance with few inside or outside the jobcentre aware of it, is an indication of how deep and wide the problems for claimants and workers can be.
By lifting the lid on the inner workings of the jobcentre, we can get a better idea of what we’re up against, how to fight it, and what to replace it with.