My brother recently applied for Universal Credit (UC), he started growing a beard to show how long it took to for his benefit to arrive. He now looks like Rasputin but without the trappings of the household of a Russian queen at his disposal. Bear in mind that my brother is single, has no dependants and is also not in receipt of housing benefit. He is not a complex case, he is essentially a jobseekers' allowance claimant.
In order to distract my sister-in-law (different brother, I am resplendent with brothers) from the painful throes of her labour this week I wittered through small talk in the moments that her pain abated. I asked her when she would be going back to her job as a support worker for care leavers, and if she was going to be ok financially for the period she was on basic statutory maternity pay. She is the definition of a complex case, with variable hours at work, changing childcare costs, changing housing needs and changing family size. When I broached her possible move over to Universal Credit from working and child tax credit her eyes rolled further back in to her head than they had with any of the contractions. At time of writing she is three days into the induction of her labour, so spare a thought.
On the face of it, Universal Credit is a good idea. The benefits system is ridiculously complex, simplifying it is common sense. Except people are not simple, they don't fit into boxes. My sister-in-law and my brother could not have more different needs, experiences and circumstances. The idea that one (fairly inflexible) thing could simply suit them both is a system designed by someone who has not met a very broad range of people. If the variation in my immediate family is so wide, imagine how many iterations are possible.
Dame Louise Casey took to the airwaves this week to advise the government to halt on the rollout of UC. Louise is a woman we can safely say has met a huge variety of people. When talking about vulnerability and homelessness, she knows her onions. She warned that the fast-paced rollout about to commence would increase homelessness and destitution, the likes of which we have not seen for decades. After she was interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme Deven Ghelani, who worked with Iain Duncan Smith in creating UC and now works at a place called Policy in Practice, came on and said councils had a role to play in bridging the terrifying gap of destitution. I nearly swerved off the road at the shock of his naivety and ignorance. Local councils cannot in any way, shape or form cope with the levels of homelessness they already face. He went on to say that advice and guidance could be provided by councils, which is funny because I have watched all advice and guidance services in Birmingham close over the last seven years. Citizen's advice offices boarded up, council homelessness centres reduced down to one. Where previously we had local neighbourhood offices where agencies worked with partners like Women's Aid and drug services to intervene to stop homelessness occurring, all are now gone! Not for a laugh, not because Birmingham City Council wanted rid of them, but because the government have starved these centres to death.
I don't work for a punchy-named think-tank but I have a few pieces of advice about how we can make this policy work in practice, because I am the practice, I am the frontline.
This policy will only cause destitution while private landlords are seemingly completely unregulated and registered. Under UC, tenants have to prove that they have a signed tenancy and have a bill in order to receive the housing benefit element of their UC, which sounds fine when you are in an office in Whitehall. In reality, thousands of people are living in situations where they have very difficult relationships with their landlord and cannot be relying on their good nature to provide them with the documentation that they need. I imagine the good landlords with record-keeping systems will largely stop offering homes to people on UC as the money is no longer guaranteed to make its way to them. So where will these people live?
There must be a definitive pathway for those who will inevitably go into arrears with their rent, because the local council's homelessness duty is simply not going to cut it. The words "intentionally homeless" will be doled out like candy to those who have fallen in to arrears and cannot pay their rent. Not such a problem if you are in a council house and the agencies can talk to each other but that misses hundreds of thousands of people. What are we going to do with all of these intentionally homeless people? The government needs to invest pretty sharpish in decent quality temporary accommodation to deal with this churn, because I can bet you a whole year's UC that the B&Bs and Travelodges on the motorways around Birmingham will be brimming with families. At a minimum, UC should not be rolled out until the Government funds - in every area - independent advice and guidance services so these people have somewhere to go for help.
The Government has absolutely got to get to the bottom of the issue of split payments. Instead of each person receiving individual benefits, UC is now all going to be paid into the pocket of one person in a household. All well and good if you are a happy unit, not so good if your old man has a penchant for the horses and a pint of the gold stuff. For victims of domestic violence, how on earth are they going to request in front of their husband to have a split payment in order that they might have a tiny piece of independence, a chance of escape? I can just see it now, loads of abused women disclosing their secret shame at the local Jobcentre. How on earth will they then explain to their controlling partner that he is only getting half the payment because she grassed him up to Julie at the Jobcentre? Remember one in three women suffer domestic abuse in their lives. These are not small insignificant numbers, these are hundreds of thousands of people.
I could go on and on, these are just a few of the very obvious pitfalls of the new system. They are not new observations, I and many others have been raising these things since UC was started seven years ago. In seven years the Government still don't have any answers to these dilemmas.
So until I have answers, I am firmly with Louise Casey. The Government need to hit pause. The Government want people to fit into boxes. They want to think that taxpayers live in these houses and benefit claimants live in those. Life isn't like that. We all pay tax, we all get benefits. Even just looking at my family there is no universal truth, we have different needs and different experiences. We are not a homogenous bunch of people who can be helped or incentivised with one thing.
Universal Credit is not a bad idea, it's just incredibly naïve. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, which is a natty proverb if you are person with the good intentions, less fun if you are the one who ends up in hell.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley