For Theresa May’s troubled government, the only good thing about Universal Credit is that it seems to be challenging Brexit for headline space when it comes to pronouncements of impending doom.
Everyone knows that Universal Credit is in trouble. It will now take 12 years to deliver, instead of the six that was originally planned.
The system consistently leaves claimants desperately waiting weeks for the money they need to put food on the table and pay their rent. A recent report by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee concluded it meant “unacceptable hardship” for claimants, but that the Department for Work and Pensions was seemingly indifferent to the suffering they were causing. Even John Major has warned that Universal Credit could be the modern day equivalent of the hated Poll Tax that was Margaret Thatcher’s undoing.
Yet despite their “culture of indifference”, the government appears to have started paying attention to the ever-growing stack of evidence against Universal Credit.
In a painfully transparent bid for voters wooed by Corbyn’s bold programme, the Prime Minister recently declared austerity to be over. The Chancellor followed this announcement with a Budget that pours several billion into the sinking ship that is Universal Credit.
But everyone can see that austerity is far from over. The money promised to make Universal Credit more generous is less than a third of the £7bn social security cuts still due to be implemented, reversing only half of the deep cuts to Universal Credit that were made by George Osborne in 2015. Meanwhile, all the Tories’ vicious welfare ‘reforms’, like the benefit cap, are set to continue under Universal Credit.
The main reason for the recent coverage is the fact that the government is due to start transferring people over to Universal Credit en masse from next summer, in a process it calls ‘managed migration’.
Although the process is referred to as a ‘migration’, claimants will not really be migrated from their existing benefits to Universal Credit. Instead claimants will be informed that their legacy benefits will be terminated and invited to make a new claim for Universal Credit. It is likely that a significant number of claimants will be unable to make a claim for Universal Credit and therefore will be left without any money at all. Considering how tortuously difficult the Universal Credit application process is, it is difficult not to believe that this is the desired intention.
What Labour will do in response to this mess is far from clear. John McDonnell has flipped between committing to scrap Universal Credit, to pleading with Tory MPs to vote against the Budget and pause Universal Credit while the programme is ‘fixed’.
But the broken Universal Credit system is a reflection of the broken capitalist system. Labour must fight for a society where there is no need for a miserly benefits system in the first place: a socialist society where everyone has access to an affordable home, fully-funded public services, and a decent job on a real living wage.