Luke Hardy (Solidarity 488) accuses me of trying to separate out the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) from the cuts to benefit that the Tories have introduced since the coalition government of 2010. In 2015 the government announced £12 billion of welfare cuts, but only a quarter of these were directly related to Universal Credit, and specifically to the in-work allowance, the total amount you could earn before the amount of benefit paid is reduced. The remaining £9 billion exist whether or not UC is scrapped.
The debate on welfare has become focused almost solely on the demand to scrap UC and is failing to note that the largest cuts will still exist if the old legacy benefits are brought back to replace it. Iain Duncan Smith may have been influenced by the proposal for a Negative Income Tax. Maybe. For sure, a Tory government does many bad things. But we do not have to go backwards in order to improve the pre UC welfare system.
Hardy says that, “Universal Credit is not some sort of technocratic improvement with unfortunate additions. It is a method of disciplining people into accepting low¬paid, precarious work. ”
This is how the current government seek to apply UC. But it is not inherent in a simplified system that both can and should see an increased take up in welfare. Hardy seems to confuse the delivery of welfare with those who administer welfare policy. His view is that Labour should “scrap and replace” Universal Credit, not with the legacy benefits but with something else, and somehow that “scrapping” would unleash a dynamic of improvement unavailable starting from here. What needs to change?
The use of sanctions, capability assessments, a reversal of the cuts, a reintroduction of the Severe Disability Premium element that UC takes from Employment Support Allowance, and the guarantee that no-one will be left worse off than they are now. Why would we better off fighting for these elements under a slogan which does not mention them (“stop and scrap”) than with ones which do mention them?
What is missing from critiques of UC is that the take-up of welfare still remains patchy. The Office of Budget Responsibility predicts that 700,000 families could benefit by up to £2. 9 billion a year under the support to which they are entitled to under UC. There has been justified outrage at the delays that have occurred in UC payments being made and the lack of support that is available for those that are then left with nothing. But a return to the old system of Housing Benefit, administered by local authorities, hardly fixes that.
Under that system there was a target of 14 days for new claims, but the average at the end of the 2017-18 financial year was 22 days. Swingeing cuts to local authorities provision and staffing have left huge gaps. The administration of welfare by local authorities is at breaking point. The issue here is one of welfare cuts, not of UC as such. We need to target, directly, the shortage of welfare and benefits advisers able to provide home visits and assist people with applications, and help those on claims to update their circumstances.
Hardy asks, “What’s the difference between that and those advocating “scrap” the system who are also fighting for changes to the legacy benefits? ”
I advocate a system of access to welfare, with a simplified process administered in one place, which means, in general terms, something like a UC model. UC may be a dirty word but our job is to advocate an alternative to what the Tories are doing. Despite what Hardy says the slogan “stop and scrap” does very little of that.