A version of this article first appeared in The Scottish Left Review
The roll-out of the Tory government’s flagship policy is woefully behind schedule. However by this time next year all of Scotland and the UK will be covered, with individuals and their families in work age benefits having to apply. It is the responsibility of the left to not only support all who are affected by this cruel regime, but offer an alternative and help organise a campaign against it.
It was Frank Fields and New Labour who first mooted the concept of Universal Credit. A single payment instead of having to claim for different benefits. This was over six years ago. After the tories came to power Ian Duncan Smith announced this as their flagship policy “To make work pay”. Individuals and families would receive a single monthly payment, one per household as working families did. Even at this early stage the third sector and charities warned of the dangers of paying housing benefit directly, instead of to landlords, and concerns for the children and frequently partner who would no longer receive any payment, not even child benefit. It has long been accepted that child benefit should be paid to the main family carer of children and provides a very basic safety net of regular income. Like the remainder and premise of a decent welfare state this is likely to be demolished as we move towards the Americanization of state benefits.
“Work must pay” according to the Tories and if this means single parents having to travel long distances and be unable to care for school age children, so be it. In the areas where Universal Credit has been trialled there have been reports of individuals and their families facing extreme poverty. This is an online system and without access to a computer people face a harsh sanction system. Although a free of charge phone line will be up and running in January after a public outcry, many report trying to stand in a free Wi-Fi area to speak to a human on the helpline which can take hours.
It is the most vulnerable in our society who face cuts in local services as well as these at a national level. Duncan-Smith at the beginning said families with a disabled person would not be affected but this has been conveniently forgotten and never announced. People with disabilities and unpaid carers will face the firing squad that is Universal Credit. So will people who receive housing benefit, both in and not in work. This will include social landlords. Councils and Housing Associations have made public their dismay that in the many areas piloting Universal credit, many tenants have gone into arrears so their income from rent is being reduced. Private Landlords who prop up a system with insufficient social housing have threatened to not take on or evict tenants on Universal Credit.
Like many of the binary policies of the Tories, Universal Credit is more than just a payment; it is propaganda promoting the concept of the “feckless poor”. If an emergency happens and no other help is available, people may use their Universal Credit payment and face arrears in housing. What will happen to during the assessment process when a new claim is made or during the sanction regime. Those on Universal Credit may find themselves facing the fear of losing their home. A roof over our heads is a very basic need.
We on the Left have known about the impact of Universal Credit for years. Nowadays the murmurs of “down with this” are increasing even Tory MPs and Frank Fields seeing what are happening to real people, not just statistics on a piece of paper, alarming. We all know by now that anyone currently moving to Universal Credit will not receive a payment until after Christmas. Some people have waited much longer and face having to apply again if there is a change in income.
Many of us work in our local communities helping fill out forms, applications as statutory services are overwhelmed. It is time to form a resistance not little Dutch boy style try and plug gaps. Like the poll tax this should lead to a campaign by all on the left. We need to provide education in order to be effective in supporting those affected. This is not an intellectual argument, but will be a devastating blow in local communities and to our neighbours and friends. A Citizen’s Income and a decent minimum wage are essential to our message but what about those who do not have the benefit of a union at their backs? Big questions we have to think about with compassion.
This is also a battle of rhetoric and we have to hold both Holyrood and Westminster governments accountable, not just blame each other. Fine speeches are good but action is essential now. By this time next year Universal Credit will be rolled out over all of Scotland and the UK. It is now time for action and time to do what we do best stand with those affected and that means the majority of us.