The government claimed that Universal Credit (UC) would be a ‘fairer and simpler system’ for claimants. But as it continues to be rolled out, more problems come to the fore, and early indications suggest that the move towards UC ‘full service’ across the country will lead to even greater disparities in claimants’ experience. These disparities are likely to be felt particularly harshly by Gypsies and Travellers – yet there’s a paucity of information about them.
We already know from the EHRC’s analysis of tax and welfare reforms since 2010, which looked at tax changes, benefits, tax credits and UC, that those on lower incomes are being hit the hardest. But what the EHRC research doesn’t look at is the differential impact on smaller marginalised groups. The survey data which underpins its analysis (the Family Resources Survey and the Living Costs and Food Survey) condenses ‘England/Welsh/Scottish/Northern Irish/British, Irish, Gypsy or Irish Traveller, and any other White background’ into the ‘white’ category, so any nuance or differentiations are lost. The same problem arises within the DWP itself: the Equality Impact Assessment of the Welfare Reform Bill carried out by the DWP in 2011 gave no specific information on Gypsies and Travellers.
This absence of data matters because a number of aspects of UC are likely to have a disproportionate effect on Gypsies and Travellers, especially as we proceed to full rollout. Below we highlight a number of problem areas for these groups – yet the absence of data reduces pressure on DWP to address them.
While technological advancements to help claimants can be a positive, the insistence on online application for UC will create challenges for those without appropriate access to the internet or sufficient skills in IT, literacy and numeracy. Gypsies and Travellers experience some of the lowest literacy rates of any group – Friends Families and Travellers’ analysis of the Travellers they work with shows that 45% have low or no literacy.
Meanwhile, internet access is required not just for the initial application for UC, but claimants are also required to log on to their online diary every day to provide evidence of their job search activity. But a 2013 report by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain and Leeds GATE concluded that national internet access rates for Gypsies and Travellers were significantly below 60%, and travel to a Jobcentre or library every day may be impractical. The consequence is that communities with poor levels of internet access rates will struggle.
The minimum income floor (MIF) in UC and fluctuating monthly earnings may mean those in self-employment on UC are adversely affected, with Resolution Foundation having found that 60% of those in self-employment in the week preceding being asked their employment status earned less than the MIF. Gypsies and Travellers may suffer especially from these rules, since self-employment is a traditional and favoured model of employment for many in these communities: the 2011 census showed that 26% of Gypsy or Irish Travellers were self-employed, the highest proportion of any ethnic group.
The household benefit cap (the total amount a household can receive in benefits, irrespective of its makeup or number of family members), and restrictions on support for third and subsequent children born after April 2017, will also in due course have a disproportionate effect on communities like Gypsies and Travellers, who traditionally have larger families than the settled population.
In a range of ways, therefore, Gypsies and Travellers suffer more than most from the design of UC – and are more likely be in poverty. Data, equality-proofing, and simple-to-use systems that go with the grain of Gypsy and Traveller lifestyles and culture are therefore needed to deliver the ‘simpler and fairer’ system promised to these communities.
Kate Green is the Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston