To a politician, bad policy may be an inconvenience. To someone like Mike, it feels like “sinking”. The 49-year-old is one of half a million people currently going through the universal credit system: the Conservatives’ ongoing flagship “welfare reform” that’s set to be radically extended this autumn.
Money is tight since he had to stop working and his wife’s wage as a teaching assistant has to stretch for them and their two teenage girls. But because they live in what’s already a universal credit area, Mike and his wife aren’t eligible for the family element of working tax credits – a bureaucratic reform that’s the difference between being able to pay the mortgage or not. If they were less than 30 miles down the road in Norwich, the family would be £550 a month better off. Instead, they’re maxing out the credit cards and reaching the bank’s overdraft.
Mike is frantic about finding money to pay for his multiple medications, but it’s buying presents for his daughters’ landmark birthdays – 13 and 18 this year – that’s playing on his mind. The important things, he says, feel all the more important now. He’s cancelled his gym membership he needs to ease his injury but it means the pain is worsening: nowadays the cycles last longer and come faster. The family’s washing machine is leaking but they can’t afford to fix it. “If this goes on much longer, we’ll have to choose between buying food or fuel.”
When welfare secretary David Gauke said this week that universal credit is “transforming lives”, it’s unlikely he meant through hunger and pain. It’s reflective of the scale of damage universal credit is causing that Gauke spoke out in response to fears from Labour MPs that – with many areas switching to universal credit in November and December and the infamous “six week” wait for a first payment still in place – families would be destitute in the run-up to Christmas. Hungry and cold children. Poor parents fearing an eviction notice. This is some incompetent 21st-century parody of Dickensian public policy.
Since it was launched in 2013, universal credit has been riddled with colossal design flaws, with delays announced seven times and a mounting price tag of £16bn. It’s the same “act first, think later” approach to so-called “welfare reform” that is seeing the Conservatives simultaneously order the mass retesting of every disabled person on out-of-work sickness benefits. On top of universal credit cuts, Mike has fallen victim to this, too.
This summer, he was told to undergo the infamous work capability assessment in order to get his benefits. Answering some questions off a screen – say, the fact Mike told the assessor he could lift an empty cardboard box – was enough to have him ruled “fit for work” and shut out of the “out-of-work sickness” component of universal credit. Talk to Mike on a day when he’s in so much pain he can’t get out of bed and he can’t understand how a benefits system could do this. “If I could work I wouldn’t have left a job I loved,” he says.
Logic, let alone decency, apparently has no place in any of this. The government’s own former welfare minister, Lord Freud, admits that the design failures in universal credit are causing one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears and risk eviction. Meanwhile, the link between universal credit and starvation is so clear that in areas where the full rollout has taken place, food bank referral rates are running at more than double the national average.
Consider, though, that this is happening before the universal credit system has had to deal with anything close to the pressure it soon will. Relatively speaking, the rollout of universal credit so far has been steady and simple: initially, only those with the most straightforward claims – standard jobseekers – were included and in highly limited areas. From May 2016, more complex cases – such as people with disabilities – were introduced but still, only at a tiny proportion of jobcentres. Yet in the next couple of months, 50 new areas of the country will all at once become universal credit territory. That’s hundreds of thousands of unemployed people and low earners at the mercy of a defective system: those citizens who, by definition of needing universal credit, are the most vulnerable to financial shocks.
In total, a staggering eight million households are due to be transferred to the new system by the end of its rollout. This is a recipe for, at best, bureaucratic chaos and at worst, widespread economic hardship. Party politics aside, any politician worth their salt would look at the damage already being caused by universal credit’s mix of flaws and cuts and hit the pause button. Instead, the government is pressing ahead regardless. Ministers may indeed want to look away. The biggest social policy disaster in modern British politics could be coming.