Labour should lead fight against Universal Credit

The Universal Credit protest at 1000 Lakeside Picture: Habibur Rahman

By Matthew Thompson

Universal Credit is the new benefit which is replacing six existing ones: Jobseekers’ Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Income Support.

The Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government created Universal Credit in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, introducing it in 2013 in a single pilot area, the former textile town of Ashton-under-Lyne just east of Manchester. Since then, it has been extended across the country for new claimants, a process due to be complete by the end of 2018 (existing claimants receiving the benefits being replaced by it are due to be transferred onto Universal Credit by 2021, although IT issues, which have beset the entire project, as well as staff shortages brought about by civil service job cuts and office closures in the last decade may see that deadline slip).

Universal Credit mimics the payment of wages by being paid monthly, rather than weekly or fortnightly, and with an initial six-week waiting period. There is absolutely no reason for such a long waiting time before benefit is paid. That gap being created in people’s incomes has seen a huge rise in referrals to food banks and rent arrears as the so-called “full service” model which includes all new claimants – single mothers, those in part-time work, couples on low incomes, those with disabilities, rather than just the easier to process claims of unemployed single people without dependents who were the only ones included in the initial trials – is introduced.

Numerous media reports have highlighted the extreme hardship now being inflicted on people in this initial six-week wait for benefit, with many of them being forced to rely on friends, family, charities and food banks to meet their basic living needs.

The waiting period for Universal Credit is an extension of the “conditionality” introduced by the 2010-15 coalition Government with its Work Programme, and before that the New Deal brought in by Labour in 1998, requiring the unemployed to undertake so-called “work-focused activity” – i.e. working for your benefits, either for voluntary/charity organisations or for private sector employers eager to exploit your free labour – and imposing sanctions on you if you don’t.

The idea in Universal Credit is that by mimicking the payment of wages in monthly arrears you attune the unemployed and the sick to the rhythms of employment and thus make them more likely to find work. But essentially it means blaming them for a scarcity of well-paid jobs and the lack of support for those with disabilities.

So could this be a “poll tax moment” for the Government like the one which in 1989 led to the political demise of the then Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?

Having made a series of U-turns before, from the “pasty tax” in George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget of 2012 to proposed cuts in tax credits in 2015 and the so-called “dementia tax” in this year’s Tory manifesto, and having lost their Parliamentary majority in the General Election, the Tories must surely be vulnerable to a backbench rebellion on their own side and a sustained campaign by Labour on the issue on ours.

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