Universal Chaos

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Victoria Pearson

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A shocking government briefing paper written by David Webster of the Child Poverty action Group has come to light exposing the failings of the Tories flagship Universal Credit system, including skyrocketing sanctions against pregnant women, and people with mental health problems.
The scheme, which the government agreed in its universal credit white paper (pdf) was justified due to the “huge social and economic cost” of “welfare dependency” has already been accused of “failing thousands of people” by the Citizens Advice Bureau,  “failing working parents and vulnerable people and the government is far too slow at tackling its flaws,” and  “failing to make work pay, pushing people further into rent arrears and leaving them vulnerable to eviction from private landlords.”

But despite food bank usage soaring in areas where universal credit has been rolled out , the government have doggedly stuck to their disastrous policy.
The DWP has published new figures for the proportion of Universal Credit and ESA claimants who were under sanction at a point in time. For Universal Credit this proportion is stated to have varied between 3.0% and 5.4%. However the Benefit Sanctions Statistics Government Briefing states that the correct figures are approximately 6.7% to 12.0%.

New figures are also published for the duration of Universal Credit and ESA sanctions. The median Universal Credit sanction length is shown as 31 days, but, according to the briefing, after allowing for repayments of hardship payments, the true median would be about 52 days, or over 7 weeks.
Given that the group most likely to be sanctioned are those with mental health problems, and pregnant women, we are faced with the stomach churning reality of our most vulnerable members of society being left with no money, mounting rent and council tax arrears for weeks on end, with little to no support.  It’s no wonder that benefit claimants feeling suicidal is so common that Iain Duncan Smith was forced to release training guidance to DWP staff on how to allow rejected claimants for Universal Credit to talk about their intention to kill themselves.
The Universal Credit regime has similar lengths of sanction to those of Job Seeker’s Allowance for the various ‘failures’, – 310,000 of which have proved to be baseless since may 2010 – but there are some critical differences.
Sanctions are lengthened by being made consecutive, not concurrent, pushing people deeper and deeper into debt. Hardship payments under Universal Credit are repayable, making people scared to take them up in case they can’t repay them, and pushing them further into debt if they do. We know that stress can be extremely damaging to pregnant women and their unborn child, so we have to ask; who exactly does this benefit? What social and economic benefit does endangering pregnant women give us, exactly?
Given that repayments are made at the rate of 40% of benefit – the same as the amount by which a hardship payment is lower than the benefit – this means that for claimants receiving hardship payments, Universal Credit sanctions are in effect 2½ times as long as their nominal length.

All sanctioned Universal Credit claimants must also demonstrate ‘compliance’ for 7 days before applying for hardship payments, and must reapply for each 4-week period. The 80% hardship rate for ‘vulnerable’ claimants is abolished. For a pregnant woman these conditions will mean skipping meals, being unable to travel to essential antenatal appointments, and being at higher risk of dangerous health conditions such as gestational diabetes, high blood pressure leading to pre-eclampsia, low birth weight and even miscarriage.
Official statistics – which have been described by the Benefits Sanctions Statistics Briefing as “far short of compliance with the requirements of the UKSA” – released on 14 September show that the take-up of income-based JSA has fallen from 69% in 2009/10 to 56% in 2015/16; the sanctions policy has been successful in driving people off benefit, and also out of the reach of government programs designed to help them, such as training and education schemes.

Perhaps the Tories feel proud of that. But when the crushing weight of evidence has, for years now, proven that the Universal Credit system is unjust, dangerous and not fit for purpose, that it punishes the vulnerable with no net benefit whatsoever, you have to wonder what is stopping Theresa May from performing one of her famous u-turns. One can only conclude that punishing the most vulnerable is the aim.
You can read the full text of the briefing here (reproduced with kind permission from the author)

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