This article appeared in the Daily Record: 23/10/2018
I recently had dinner in Glasgow’s east end with a friend who told me that, since being made redundant and applying for the newly rolled out Universal Credit, he has been getting up each day and going to his local library from opening to closing time just to keep warm until he gets his first payment, which typically takes up to five weeks. As a single male, he is among the most likely to be affected by the policy, find himself at the mercy of a foodbank and die before he reaches 50 years of age.
For the entire month of October, the controversial welfare reform which intends to simplify the existing provision of benefits and incentivise work, has been a domestic nightmare for a UK Government focused unflinchingly on international matters. It began with two former Prime Ministers, on opposing ends of the political spectrum, raising shared concerns that the continued rollout could lead to similar outbreaks of civil disobedience seen in the 1990s following the implementation of the Poll Tax.
Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, responded in an interview where she admitted some claimants will be worse off under the new system. Last week, a letter was signed by 27 Conservative MPs requesting that Chancellor Philip Hammond use the Budget next week to reinvest £2 billion which was previously withdrawn by George Osborne. It then emerged yesterday that party donor Lord Farmer backed the call stating that, without the reinvestment, the policy is likely to “fail millions”.
Last week, a narrow vote was held in the Commons, which the Government won by only 20 votes, enabling them to conceal a report they commissioned on the potential impact of Universal Credit. Glasgow Central MP, Alison Thewliss, said during the heated debate before the vote that one of her constituents from a working household with five children will end up over £700 worse off. Ironically, the difference for a non-working household is minimal. One wonders how exactly this incentivises work.
Currently, the Universal Credit freight train is rolling into Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and, by December, will have alighted at all job centres in Scotland’s three most populous local authorities. In the same year, Glasgow has closed more job centres than any other city in the United Kingdom ahead of arguably the most significant welfare reform in the history of the social security system. Foodbanks, and their volunteers, are already at breaking point as demand begins to outstrip supply.
A number of leading charities launched an online petition some months ago, under the auspices of End Hunger UK, to ‘Fix Universal Credit’ which is due to be delivered to Downing Street in a fortnight. Despite the current profile of Universal Credit and apparent public support for an overhaul, the petition has secured less than 10,000 signatures. Some frontline practitioners and foodbank managers told me they refused to sign it because they are sceptical that the reform can be fixed.
One foodbank volunteer said: “When the message coming from leading charities is removed from what we see at the frontline and from the people directly affected by the policy, we have a problem. Universal Credit is like the iceberg whose tip looks less harmless than what lurks beneath but the effect is clear. I think the campaign to fix Universal Credit, rather than scrap it, is little more than an effort to re-varnish the decks of a sinking ship.”
Disability Welfare Rights advisor, Steven McAvoy, who has worked with foodbanks across Scotland for over a decade, thinks the reform is beyond repair: “Universal Credit stands upon the ideology that the system can be simplified but the situations people find themselves in are never simple. Any flexibility creates complexity but that complexity is sometimes necessary. We need good and secure employment but the belief that work is the best route out of poverty is not true for everyone.”
Another foodbank manager in Glasgow said: “Universal Credit coming to Glasgow makes for a really terrifying time. I had hoped things would be improving rather than getting worse.” The manager, who wished to remain nameless, added: “It’s particularly worrying right before Christmas and New Year, when the use of electricity is higher and household budgets are more finely balanced. This system is broken, failing too many people and is in need of an entire overhaul.”
I feel for Theresa May who is currently in the mother of all storms. A recent Ipsos MORI poll revealed more than 70% disapproval for her Government. The last time it was that high was just before the last Labour Government left office. Amanda Platell said on The Andrew Marr Show that Brexit could finish Theresa May this week. Universal Credit is almost universally discredited on the frontline and I believe her domestic agenda fails to address the burning injustices she promised to salve at the outset of her premiership.