The shocking failings of universal credit are justly blamed on the government having listened to the wrong people when setting it up. The sensible reforms set out by Labour show that the opposition has been listening to the right ones. Never mind that the package of changes announced by Jeremy Corbyn on Saturday was misleadingly described as a plan to “scrap” universal credit. His party’s proposals to end the five-week wait for initial payments, scrap the benefit cap and two-child limit (and heinous “rape clause”) are sound. So are promises to review the sanctions system, ditch the “digital only” approach and hire 5,000 new advisers to help those who struggle with online applications.
Brexit has temporarily obscured much else. But rising levels of poverty in the UK over the past five years, particularly among children and pensioners, rival the current chaos as the deepest stain on the Conservatives’ record. Combined with the rise of insecure, low-paid work, use of food banks and sharp increases in homelessness and rough sleeping, this immiseration must be a priority for any party seeking to replace them.
Universal credit is not the sole culprit. Decades of failure in housing policy, a lack of affordable childcare and changes in the jobs market have all contributed to a situation in which record numbers of families are trapped in in-work poverty. But experts are more or less unanimous in the view that universal credit has not only failed to deliver on its dual promise of saving money while getting more people into work; it has also made life for thousands of people harder, as increases in food bank use have proved.
If Conservative ministers continue to get off lightly given this failure of a flagship piece of legislation, that is because people who do not claim benefits do not take a close interest in them. The details of what the government tried to do by rolling six benefits into one, initially with cross-party support, and how it all went wrong, are partly technical. Only the most egregious instances, such as when claimants have died after being refused benefits, or decisions have been overturned in court, tend to make headlines.
Any new system has teething troubles. But the underlying problem with universal credit, partly acknowledged by Amber Rudd when she became the sixth work and pensions secretary in less than three years, is its underlying principle. This was former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan-Smith’s conviction that the role of the system was not simply to allocate benefits, but to change claimants’ behaviour. The five-week wait, increased sanctions, two-child policy and “digital only” approach were all in their different ways supposed to change people – or better them, as he no doubt saw it. It was the head-on collision of this scheme with George Osborne’s austerity economics that proved fatal. That the government set off down this route without resolving such contradictions first should shame them both.
Given the record of the past decade, Labour is right to conclude that attitudes must change as well as rules. Renaming the DWP the Department for Social Security is a good idea. So is shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood’s suggestion that the new department should aspire to be viewed as part of our national fabric, much like the NHS.