November 24, 2017 : Ruth Boyle

Wounds of Universal Credit not addressed by Budget changes

Saved from the chopping block by May’s post-election weakness, Phillip Hammond was yesterday able to jump to the dispatch box to deliver another budget and, alas, another u-turn.

This time, the roll-out of Universal Credit got a face lift of sorts. The changes include:
• The ridiculously unfair six-week waiting period will be cut to a slightly more tolerable five- week period.
• The seven-day waiting period has been removed so that entitlement starts on the day of the claim
• Any household requiring an advance can access a full month’s payment within five days of their application and the repayment of this loan has been extended from six to 12 months
• To support these changes, the roll-out is going to be ‘more gradual’ between February 2018 and April 2018.

It’s been reported that these changes represent the Chancellor bowing to pressure – a direct result of concerns that have been repeatedly raised. We should definitely be proud, as a sector, of our work in raising these concerns.

However these amendments combine to offer little more than a shiny sticking plaster. The underlying wound is the treatment of people in the UK reliant on our welfare state. These minimal changes do little to address the shuddering effects that Universal Credit has had.

Reducing spend on benefits has been central to the government’s economic strategy, whatever the consequences for inequality, poverty and social cohesion. The poorest places in the country are almost always hit hardest by welfare reform. Research has shown that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 has fallen on women and 44% of those moving from disability living allowance to personal independence payments will have benefits cut or removed.

And, yet, it remains full steam ahead for a government who have brought us such roaring successes as ‘austerity’, ‘austerity lite’ and the ‘’unfathomably long-term economic plan’.

Moving forward without questioning the deepest principles of the Universal Credit suggests that the government is either completely pre-occupied by Brexit or that UC is representative of the Conservative Party’s contemporary ideology – a disregard for those reliant on the welfare state.

Changes should have been much more far-reaching. The third sector joined in collective voice to call for the ending of the benefit freeze, which The Poverty Alliance expect will be the main driver of rising poverty over the coming years. Others called for the halt of Universal Credit until these problems were resolved. The budget missed the opportunity to make any such changes.

The Trussell Trust has found that demand for emergency food parcels are 30% higher in areas where Universal Credit is being rolled out, the Child Poverty Action Group have stated that cuts to Universal Credit alone will push one million children into poverty by 2020.

Service users at SAMH’s service in Inverclyde have reported waits of up to seven weeks for initial payments have resulted in rent arrears and the threat of eviction.

But this is a government, it seems, that doesn’t care about evidence-based policy making.
This is a difficult thing for the sector to swallow when we can present hard-hitting evidence of the suffering caused by these welfare changes and see such small responses. These are policies unrooted in reality, guided by ideology.

While the Scottish Government have already used flexibilities to change the frequency of UC payments and to manage payments to social and private landlords, the fundamental problems of Universal Credit remain. The changes announced by the chancellor continue this trajectory of improvement, but when the desire to simplify the benefit system is combined with waiting times and cuts, the policy cannot be humanized.

Overall, welcomed? Yes. Far enough? Definitely not.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Ruth Boyle