Universal Credit is back in the headlines after Budget 2017, following years of failings, cost increases, delays and criticisms. The Conservative government has finally begun to row back on some of the extremes of the failing system; as part of his Budget Chancellor Phillip Hammond promised to end the one-week wait before someone is allowed to claim the benefit, reversing one of George Osborne’s many assaults on the UK’s poorest. He also made a small concession to helping with rent arrears, a key failing that is designed in to the system, and extended the time period over which emergency advances can be paid back.
As is usually the way, a lower-ranked member was forced to reveal the gory detail the day afterwards, and Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke was the unlucky man. He confessed that the ending of the one-week wait would not be enacted until February 2018, and the housing benefit extension not until April, so if you were thinking of being made redundant in the next few months you might want to ask your boss to wait for a bit. The extension of the payback period for advances is all very well, but many claimants don’t know they are entitled to these payments, suggesting more fundamental communications work needs to be done.
These measures, while welcome, do not go nearly far enough to make the benefit fit for purpose. It still has huge problems and does not do what it needs to, namely support those who cannot support themselves while making it easier to move into work. There are many ways in which it can be improved, so while the Tories are finally in a listening mode, what more needs to be done to fix the beleaguered system?
Ask claimants what works for them - most service providers across the public and private sectors take user surveying very seriously. Even when the customer has little choice of provider, most want to understand those who participate in their business and to give them what they want. While DWP does some evaluation, the way its services are designed and delivered shows the government has little interest in implementing findings. The first, and by far the most important step both the department and government must take, is to understand claimants and give them what they need.
No waits - the Chancellor’s announcement means that the wait for a first payment will reduce from six weeks to five. Given that most claimants start poor (you can’t have significant savings and claim) this shows a lack of understanding of, or empathy for, their circumstances. The only acceptable wait is no wait in these emergency circumstances.
Improve the taper - losing 50p of every pound you earn is deemed by the Tories to be a disincentive to work when applied to higher rate tax payers. Those on UC lose 63p of every pound, so the same logic must be applied and benefits must taper off more gently when work hours increase.
Ensure it pays a liveable income - every western European country except the UK offers a national insurance scheme for workers that links benefits to previous earnings when they fall ill or lose their jobs. The lack of this link is one of the main reasons why the UK benefits system is so mean, but in any case it should always provide enough money for all citizens to live on whether they work or not.
Backtrack on conditionality - under Conservative-led governments since 2010, claimants have been required to jump through more and more hoops to receive benefits, whether unemployed, single parents, sick or disabled. There is no evidence that this has increased the number entering work, or decreased the overall benefit bill or the number claiming fraudulently. What it has done is make the experience of claiming benefits worse and worse, and burden those already experiencing problems. Sanctions have been over-applied and must end, and the move to an IT-based system with fewer direct checks makes this an obvious solution.
Improve the roll-out - including more support for those claiming UC for the first time, and improved IT systems. Hammond revealed a slowdown in the roll-out, but a very limited one. The important thing is to ensure those who are moved on to UC, and those who make a fresh claim, are helped to understand how it works rather than abandoned to the online offer only.
Stop the cuts and the barbs - claimants must no longer be seen as soft touches when it comes to cuts, and the Conservatives must stop preparing the ground by criticising their morals. Universal Credit should help this process by joining workers and the workless on one benefit, but politicians need to radically improve the way they talk about claimants.
Pay the housing element direct to landlords - any system of rent payments which builds in arrears, and leads to evictions, cannot be fit for purpose. Direct payments must be the norm, not a specially applied for exception.
Build-in employment support and training - retraining is likely to be a key need post-Brexit for both low-paid and workless claimants as skills and labour supply from Europe disappear, and building access to this into the system would be hugely valuable in replacing them with local supply.
Information provision - tell people what they are entitled to, what to do if things change or go wrong, how to complain about bad treatment, and provide a helpline which gives immediate access to advice. Information needs to be provided in a range of formats, or valuable offers like emergency payments will never reach those who need to know about them.
If Universal Credit is ever going to work properly then the experiences of claimants needs to be put at its centre. Too many of its problems are the result of a design which took too little account of their needs, and the system’s failures will only be rectified when claimants are respected, trusted and empowered.