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The Unfolding Welfare Crisis in the UK

Will a system designed for universal care become a universal catastrophe?

Chris Gold of Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset — one of the “test” areas in which Universal Credit is in operation — was found to have died of natural causes. Despite suffering a stroke in 2015, Gold had lost his Employment Support Allowance after being declared “fit for work,” and then in the following months found himself in the labyrinthine matrix of Universal Credit: in the unending wait for money the phone was cut off as bills went unpaid while reliance on food banks meant his diet became at best unreliable and intermittently regular. Whilst waiting for payment of the benefit and a matter of days before his death he was interviewed by ITV:

“I feel like I’ve been hung out to dry and not eating and that — it just makes you feel ill all the time. Yeah, I want to keep the house because I’ve worked hard for thirty eight years but it just seems unfair that I’ve worked all my life to buy a house and now I’m going to end up with nothing.”

In Grimsby, North East Lincolnshire — another Universal Credit “test area”­ — the coroner found the cause of Brian Bailey’s death to be suicide. Bailey had also lost his ESA benefit after being declared “fit for work.”

Universal Credit is the flagship “welfare reform” of the UK Conservative government, and it is supposed to “make the benefits system simpler.” For those too ill to work, including people with disabilities, the main benefit is Employment Support Allowance, the continued payment of which depends on applicants going through a “Work Capability Assessment” that scores them to determine their eligibility. This assessment is notorious for ignoring evidence that someone is indeed too ill or disabled to work, including evidence supplied by clinicians and specialists, and overwhelmingly classifies claimants as “fit for work,” which renders them ineligible for whatever incapacity benefits they were getting and, instead, categorizes them as “Job Seekers.” As a result, 111,450 people who were claiming this benefit died between March 2014 and February 2017.

While it currently covers about 10% of the UK population, distributed in key “test areas,” the Department for Work and Pensions, which oversees Universal Credit, plans to migrate three million people to the program by Summer 2019. Under the DWP’s proposal, close to two million people currently in receipt of Tax Credits and around another 750,000 who receive out-of-work disability benefits will be given a month to make a claim for Universal Credit or risk losing their existing benefits, leaving them without adequate income, and in the worst cases, destitute.

At the heart of Universal Credit lies conditionality: the notion that eligibility for benefits and services should be linked to claimants’ compliance with certain rules and behavior, and that sanctions follow from breaking these. To be sure, ever since the coalition government of David Cameron (2010-2015) and successive Tory governments, austerity measures and extremely punitive policies which view reliance on public assistance as an individual moral failing were already in place. But the severity and harshness of Universal Credit bears closer resemblance to Foucault’s Discipline & Punish. This sanctions-based regime is best exemplified in Universal Credit’s unemployment benefit, dubbed “Job Seekers Allowance” and conditional on “signing in” at the program’s Job Centre, upon which applicants receive £146.20 (around US $190) every two weeks. In this system, claimants wage an unwinnable war to avoid the arbitrary loss of their only income for the pettiest supposed infraction of Job Centre “rules” — which are constantly changed by the DWP — which can stop all benefit payments for two weeks, but up to three years. “Work coaches” under pressure to reach targets for sanctions at any cost will trip unwary claimants: the more vulnerable, the easier the pickings.

A five year study into welfare conditionality conducted between 2013 and 2018 by researchers at six UK universities found that outcomes from sanctions are almost universally negative. The National Audit Office (NAO) published a report on Universal Credit and found that wherever it exists, it causes hardship if not destitution and does not save money or boost employment. Yet the DWP remains impervious to all evidence of correlation between poverty, homelessness, or destitution — or increasing claimant death tolls — and making people wait three weeks for what the state defines as “subsistence.” Instead, it has displayed its magical thinking in the selective use and presentation of data, for instance using the sanctions regime cynically to declare that “unemployment has not been lower since the 1970s since those who are sanctioned are removed from the claimant total. “Record numbers” in employment don’t stand up to critical analysis at all: since 2010 employment numbers have been re-classified to include under the category of people “in employment,” zero-hours contracts yielding as little as one hour a week deemed “full-time,” workfare in all its variants, and above all, bogus “self-employment” of one kind or another. The different kinds of bogus “self-employment” amount to the “independent contractors” of Uber and Deliveroo, but also those with an eBay account or doing piece work selling Avon beauty products, classified as “sole traders.”

This glacial cynicism displayed by the DWP has faced criticism from Work & Pensions select committee chair Frank Field when he noted the DWP’s advertising campaign for Universal Credit “plays people for fools” in its claims to “mirror the world of work.” Indeed, the “world of work” does not withhold compensation for weeks at a time demanding this is converted into debt deducted from subsequent payments like Universal Credit does. Nonprofit community organizations such as the Greater Manchester Law Centre have challenged DWP’s recent announcement that several large voluntary sector organizations, including the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, would see to the outsourced facilitation for “advice” in implementing Universal Credit, others being made to sign “gagging clauses” which see them lose funding should they criticize it. As GMLC Chair John Nicholson said: “The voluntary sector should not be helping the government implement the iniquitous and inhumane restrictions on benefits represented by Universal Credit. It is not the role of the voluntary advice organizations to take government money to implement something that is fundamentally against the best interests of those they are supposed to be supporting.”

The gravity of the problems created or exacerbated by Universal Credit now risk the tenuous minority government of Prime Minister Theresa May, who could face a House of Commons revolt including from her own MPs after former DWP Minister Esther McVey admitted that “some people will be worse off” under the program. Professor Sir Ian Diamond, chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee which advises the DWP, has said that plans to migrate three million people in the benefits system will transfer an “unreasonable level of risk” on to claimants, leaving hundreds of thousands of people worse off and suffering hardship. Several backbench Tory MPs, including Johnny Mercer MP for Plymouth Moor View, education committee chair Robert Halfon and Heidi Allen, have called for cuts to the system to be reversed, aware that it could cost the party marginal seats, and indeed its fragile grip on power.

Critics from within government are perturbed by the vast scale of the proposed changes to the benefits system which Universal Credit makes, not least the fact that these hit their own constituents — not “just” the unemployed. The wholesale and potentially disastrous changes Universal Credit makes have faced severe criticism from two former Prime Ministers: Sir John Major and Gordon Brown. Major has commented that he thinks Universal Credit risks becoming as damaging as the Poll Tax of the late-1980s which had to be abandoned after wide-scale mass revolt which culminated in the riots of 1990; Brown added that unless it is scrapped “a summer of discontent lies ahead.”

Universal Credit throws people into crisis wherever it exists in the country. What is so disastrous is the idea that it is possible to compel and coerce those who already have jobs which do not pay enough, with (not so) veiled threats and impossible demands for compliance, setting people up to fail as the price they have to pay for their Job Centre wage supplement. Nothing comparable exists anywhere else in countries with established welfare states, and in spite of the benefit’s name, it could be considered the opposite of Universal Basic Income (UBI) because “conditionality” is the only thing “universal” about it, seeking as it does, to extend this conditionality to the general workforce — specifically the underemployed and those earning the minimum wage or just above it, which DWP refers to euphemistically as “in work progression.”

These being the basics of the UK benefits system in 2018, it should be apparent that those who use it do so because they have no other choice to make ends meet. It remains to be seen, quite seriously, how much longer Universal Credit can last before finally being abandoned: how and when that decision is made it will not be due to any Damascene conversion but to straightforward political survival for whoever makes it.

Christian Garland teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests include Frankfurt School Critical Theory, the rapidly changing nature of work, and the restructuring of the Capital-labor relation. Twitter: @Displ_Estr

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