Luke Hardy argues in Solidarity 482 that the Labour should “stop and scrap” Universal Credit. But that position lacks a positive alternative.
The immediate implications of stop and scrap are to return to the legacy benefits including Job Seekers Allowance, Employment Support Allowance and Disability benefit — all benefits with their own levels of conditionality, poor levels of payment, and sanctioning, and further complicated by having multiple agencies administer varying benefits.
UC in practice has been shaped by the Cameron-May austerity agenda, but it has complicated that agenda rather than being designed to shape it.
It was devised in 2009, in a report by the right-wing Centre for Social Justice, independently from Tory plans to make cuts to the benefit system. Just to achieve cuts, it would have been simpler for the Tories to hack back the existing benefits.
The introduction of Universal Credit will cost around the government about £16 billion. It is projected to make savings long-term, because of its simplified infrastructure, and its claimed merits in pushing claimants into work, but that is a different matter.
As many on the left said back then, there are advantages in having benefits that cover a range of needs unified and administered by one body, rather than spread across agencies of central and local government. Advantages to claimants, who have a simplified system to work with, are less likely to under-claim, and, in principle, have greater ability to resolve issues.
All those advantages have been overwhelmed by the relentless regime of benefit cuts within which UC has been introduced, but those cuts have affected legacy benefits too. UC already has an online process of application and validation meaning that within three days you can receive an initial, albeit small, advance payment.
The previous system meant that minimum payments would not be made until two weeks after first applying. The answer is to call for the initial payment to be much higher, not to return to the old system. A return to the old system would leave in place the Work Capability Assessment which existed for Employment Support Allowance; the sanctions introduced for Job Seekers Allowance in 1996; and the reviews of disability benefits introduced around the same time.
“Fit-for-work” assessments for people who at one time would have been on Disability Benefit, with their degrading and damaging procedures, could be removed without regressing to a system of cross-cutting multiple benefit payments.
Such foul features of the UC system as it is are clearly seen as desirable by the Tories and much of the right wing media. But to argue for a reversal towards Disability Benefit, rather than progress to something better, is wrong.
Fundamentally, our pressure should be to redesign the system without removing the unification of benefits. We should demand that the roll-out be paused now, without demanding that current UC recipients be thrown back onto the old benefits, which would bring serious losses to some people.
Every claimant who is now worse off under UC than the legacy benefits should get a guarantee that their payments match those they received under the previous benefits regime.
The conditionality and capability assessments should be removed, the allowances paid increased.
The payment to the individual of what was once housing benefit, paid to landlords, under the slogan of giving autonomy to the claimant, has put people in serious financial difficulty because it has come with serious cuts to the amounts paid. The basic answer is to increase the payments.
To build a benefits system fit for purpose, we will need to campaign with claimants, benefits workers, and their union PCS, to build a system of “Universal Credit’ which provides enough money to lead a dignified life.
That means scrapping the “rape clause” [limiting child tax credit to the first two children], ending the benefit cap, and uprating the amount paid with inflation or earnings, whichever is higher.
Scrapping the “no recourse to public funds” clause and making a set of straightforward and inclusive entitlement conditions.
Removing the sanctions regime and pushing for a DWP that is properly staffed with appropriate facilities to deliver the benefits people require and provide specialist advice.
Cuts and the part-privatisation of services must be stopped and reversed.
Medical professionals with appropriate knowledge should be employed to assist people with health issues in getting what they are entitled to.