universal_credit_enough_is_enough - RSA

Universal Credit – enough is enough

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  • Future of Work
  • Employment
  • Behaviour change
  • Health & wellbeing

The claims made for Universal Credit– cost effectiveness, impact on employment, simplicity - have no evidence behind them. Its introduction has been a disaster across the board, argues Anthony Painter.

Universal Credit is but one part of a three-pronged approach to welfare reform. The other two are the extension of hard conditionality in the form of sanctions on the basis that work is all you need for economic security. The third is cuts to levels of payment with some groups, the most vulnerable such as those with long term sickness and disabilities amongst them, bearing the brunt of cuts.

This is where I drop traditional English reserve. Taken together this package of welfare reform has left a system that is cruel, punishing, bureaucratic, authoritarian, ineffective, undermining of good work, and of caring, personal development, family harmony, and public health – most particularly mental health. This system is a national scandal; it must be stopped not just patched up and as soon as possible. It has left us a society utterly morally degraded and, in many ways, repugnant. We should be ashamed of what we have done.

Why ‘we’, surely it’s the Government? Without wishing to absolve successive Governments of any blame whatsoever, we as a society have to bear responsibility too. For too long we have allowed the myth that poverty is caused primarily by character to be perpetuated. Cod science has even been used in defence of this standpoint as Atif Shafique brilliantly set out in an RSA blog last week. But we’ve been willing to drift into the lazy assumption that all that matters is a job and if you don’t have a job then there’s something suspect about you. Welfare, therefore, should not be a support, a platform of security, rather it should be a corrective.

Here we are, a quarter of a century of welfare reform later, with more in work poverty than out of work poverty, mass harm perpetuated by a punishing welfare system, and the state extended into every nook and cranny of the lives of those who are poor or destitute.

Lest you think this is just the outpourings of an angry critic of the current system – though angry as charged, why would you not be? -  it is worth dwelling on the evidence that has been published in the past fortnight. Astream of conclusive evidence observed over several years has become a torrent in recent weeks. Firstly, a multi-university five-year study into welfare conditionality found that there was little evidence on any impact on motivation to work, many were pushed into destitution, ‘survival crime’, and ill health, and conditionality had triggered negative personal, financial, and health problems. Support programmes were found to be weak which is little wonder given the behavioural premises on which the system has been constructed- why put in place decent programmes when you can carry a big stick instead?

And last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced evidence that further backed up these findings. It discovered that 1.5million people, in the world’s fifth largest economy, were ‘destitute’. And, by the way, the Trussell Trust has shown that where Universal Credit has been introduced there has been a thirty percent surge in use of food banks. The Department for Work and Pensions denied this. This National Audit Office today backed the Trussell Trust over the Department for Work and Pensions.

And the final blow to the current system was dealt today – by the National Audit Office. The costs are far higher than forecast, the impacts on individuals in terms of indebtedness, rent arrears, and destitution clear, and far from simplicity, the system is excruciatingly complex. And this is where you end up when a Government ministry embarks on a mass campaign of interventionist individual behaviour change. Universal Credit is bad because the values on which it was built are rotten, the implementation was rotten, and the impacts are predictably rotten.

This course was set in the 1990s, extended under the Labour Government and then accelerated under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition and now the Conservatives governing alone. In other words, every governing UK party has its fingerprints on the current welfare state. Quarter of a century ago we took a slow then sharper turn into a cul-de-sac. And that is now where we are – the clutch is disengaged but the foot pushes the accelerator to floor, smoke is pouring out of the exhaust.

The failure of a quarter century of reform is almost too big to comprehend. Caution amongst anti-poverty campaigners, think tanks, the media, and political parties in insisting on a fundamental change of direction is understandable. Path dependencies are ingrained and the scale of the challenge incredible. Universal Credit and the wider system of which it is a part is not going to be replaced overnight and therefore short-term mitigating measures will be needed. But there is an enormous risk to this approach without a case for more fundamental change alongside. This risk is that technical reforms do just enough to hide the scandal from view without resolving the fundamental issues.

Whilst short term changes are important and necessary, there should be greater boldness from those who can see the corrosive impacts. There now needs to be a determination to replace Universal Credit and the entire assumptions on which the wider system was built. Rather than a system based on managing caricatured individual behaviours creating new insecurities as it operates, the system should instead be based on ensuring a bedrock of economic security for all. Conditional, means-tested systems cannot achieve that. And that should be step one of a now urgent response – to call for a system based on a fundamental level of economic security. And then the real change can begin.

Immediately, the roll out of Universal Credit should be suspended. Those who have ended up in debt or rent arrears should be compensated. Conditionality should be softened pending a full evidence review into conditionality and the culture and actions of Job Centre Plus. This review should be free to recommend the end of conditionality and, should the culture of Job Centre Plus be seen to be irreversible in a reasonable time frame, the replacement of it with an agency tasked with promoting economic security and support could be recommended.

Alongside this review, there should be a full independent inquiry into how this debacle happened with a view to laying out how to avoid it once again as the welfare system is replaced. This inquiry would provide lessons for wider public policy. In tandem, experimentation in how support for individuals and families could operate differently should be widened. Hillary Cottam has some intriguing ideas for how relational, civic welfare could work, explored in her new book, Radical Help. New support measures must rest on a firm base. Reforms to how we provide cash support need to be explored. A Basic Income, grounded in economic security as a fundamental, unconditional level of support, should be understood more deeply. The Scottish Government has sensibly funded feasibility studies into Basic Income pilots. The rest of the UK should be supported in doing so also.

Finally, a Commission should be established to recommend options for the replacement of the current welfare system over the course of decade and a half (welfare reform takes time). It should be tasked, amongst other things, with exploring possible pathways to a Universal Basic Income. The RSA has suggested what one of these pathways might be. That would be but one element of change. The whole system including support for housing, disability, child care, and into and in work support should be considered. A whole system reform is now necessary.

As the original Beveridge report stated: “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” As we embark on the 2020s - a likely decade of disruption as society ages, technology spreads, the world of work restructures, and Brexit takes hold – we already face chronic and acute economic insecurity. And here we are grappling with a monumentally failing system. This national scandal can be pivoted into deep and profound progressive change. Let’s not turn away.

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  • Thank you for these comments. They are all much appreciated.

    I would highly recommend the blog that David Hencke posted a link to showing the impacts of UC in Hastings.

    Unfortunately, Universal Credit remains a quiet scandal. But the response we have received to a number of blogs in which we explore the modern welfare state show that there is knowledge, experience and awareness of the issues and a determination to confront them. My hope is that this cuts through to wider mainstream politics and public discussion at some point soon. Without it doing so, the consequences will endure- even if they are slightly mitigated.

  • I  absolutely agree with you. I am a freelance journalist who keeps an eye on Whitehall and Universal Credit has been a disaster. What shocked me in the National Audit Office report is the information about how it is  impacting on the claimants and services aimed at supporting them. In Appendix 5 it is disclosed In Hastings in particular the foodbank may have to spend £200,000 expanding its warehouse to store extra food for desperate people, in County Durham it is reported that social landlords let alone private landlords  won't let to UC claimants because they are not certain of payments and even a local credit union in Kent won't give loans to them. I wrote about this on my own blog. The link is


  • Thank you Anthony for a great piece of writing. Technology does much to make changes in society but not where there is such diversity in people, who are already vulnerable. We are human and the solution is to bring the system back to the human level. There is no excuse for putting people through assessments to access benefits when ill or disabled or both. I have read that the costs are in the region of half a billion. What a waste of money when we have perfectly good doctors who do in their appointments with their patients make assessments and advice them medically. This money could surely be put into the NHS to support the doctors at surgeries who are already making those decisions. This could take immediate effect with many then saved from an horrendous process that does little to improve their condition. 

    NCBeale I would suggest that part of the reduction in unemployment figures are due to the 16 to 18 year olds who now have to stay in education and the zero hour contracts. I wonder how the analysis of employment has changed that would also have an impact on those figures. Do those who sleep on our streets with no address still count in those figures? 

  • Very well said Anthony. I love your passion. It is time to cast off the English reserve and call a spade a spade. We the many, must all take responsibility for this 'evil' which punishes the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. As Einstein said, evil persists in this world not because of evil men, but 'good' people who stand by and do nothing! We need to learn how to be humane again, and realise that by caring for our fellow man we create a better world for everyone, including ourselves. I am constantly amazed at the selfishness of those with money or power, who would rather spend £35,000 on a bottle of champagne than give to prevent or end human suffering. And there are so many in the UK who are suffering, living desperate lives devoid of hope, joy or a future. So while for some it is the best of times, for the majority it is the worst.

  • I really don't think that this kind of political rant should go out under an RSA banner. "rotten..rotten...rotten" and then you complain that there is "no evidence". Almost nothing in public policy has a proper evidence base, and even papers published in major scientific journals turn out to be wrong. So it simply does not follow from "there is no evidence that X is working properly" that "X is clearly wrong".

    Benefits is a very difficult area and there will always be cases of hardship and maladministration. I have no doubt that the implementation of UC has been badly botched - as would the implementation of ANY charge to Benefits. The solution is to implement it properly.

    As for Universal Basic Income: John Rentoul rightly describes this as a zombie bad idea. AFAIK it has never been implemented at any scale,  and most calculations show that it is economically unaffordable. In addition, whatever the shortcomings of the implementation, the overall effect of Conservative policies on benefits and employment has been record levels of employment and unemployment at the lowest levels for decades. So it hasn't been a complete failure.