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Universal Credit – Universal Chaos?

05/04/2018 08:09

Greg Smith’s latest blog reflects on work at the sharp end of austerity Britain, and theological approaches to change.

“I’ve been working for 38 years, never been out of a job. I want a job – I left the last one because I had to for my own mental health, and now I find I have to wait 32 weeks for benefits. So the money I’ve saved has to last until then.”

“I only get £50 a week, how can you manage on that? We need jobs, more jobs in the town!”

(Unemployed men, Blackpool)

Stories like these are commonplace in conversations that church and charity workers are having every day with people who are at the sharp end of austerity Britain. The accounts of destitution, sanctions, stress and despair captured hauntingly in Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake bring tears to the eyes and angry red colour to the cheeks of even the most hardened and cynical citizens of this land.

Over recent years the whole welfare benefit system, which is the legacy of the welfare state policies developed by William Temple and his circle of friends in the 1940s, has been undergoing radical change. Some of the change could be seen as appropriate modernisation and simplification of what has become an extremely complex system that is scarcely fit for purpose in today’s economy. Policy makers talk of the need to eradicate the culture of dependency and “making work pay” – political messages which play well among “just about managing” voters. Yet it has become increasingly clear that welfare reform has inflicted casualties, and the implementation of key policies is now looking more and more chaotic. In response to growing protests and computer glitches the implementation programme is repeatedly delayed and detailed regulations are tweaked.

At the heart of the welfare reform programme is the national roll-out of Universal Credit, a single monthly benefit that replaces at least six individual conditional benefits that could be claimed by economically inactive and poorly paid households and paid to them typically every fortnight. The key changes are that applications will normally have to be made online and benefits will be paid into a bank, building society or credit union account a month in arrears. This means claimants will need to adopt careful new approaches to budgeting, including ensuring rent is paid to the landlord by the claimant.

If all this is not difficult and stressful enough, many claimants have limited IT and literacy skills, experience of long-term poverty, together with complex needs and chaotic lives as a result of mental health or addiction issues. In areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out there is growing evidence of bureaucratic problems – Lancaster Citizens Advice for example reports delays, mistakes, and sanctions leading to destitution and threatened evictions.

So what was the thinking behind the policy of Universal Credit? It was the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith, a practising Roman Catholic, who seemed genuinely moved some years before he came into government by his “Easterhouse epiphany” when the late Bob Holman showed him round the neighbourhood on a Glasgow housing scheme. Convinced that people needed to be brought out of multi-generational deprivation and that the key to this was work and taking personal responsibility, the Universal Credit scheme was designed.

There are probably three ways we could seek to frame an understanding of the present state of play.

  1. Karl Popper talked about the way many human decisions have unintended consequences and suggested that policies should be treated as hypotheses to be tested, and then iteratively revised. In this account maybe the government had good intentions but by now the policy as a hypothesis seems to have been falsified by failure, yet might still be reformed.
  2. A more classical Marxist approach could argue that current welfare reform policy is a deliberate strategy to make people impoverished and destitute as a way of disciplining them into work. With the stagnation of wages and the growth of low paid, part-time, precarious work Universal Credit could be seen within a raft of policies that are a roaring success for the capitalist classes.
  3. There is a third option, which in a way is more theological and might fit more easily into the Temple tradition. On this account welfare reform and the current universal credit chaos is a logical consequence of the philosophy and ideology behind it. Neo-liberalism’s project, pursued by most nation states over the last four decades, involves transferring risk and expense from the state on to the individual. In Maggie Thatcher’s slogan “there is no such thing as society.” Here we see a profoundly erroneous and unchristian understanding of human nature, to combat which we need to address the underlying values of our society as Justin Welby has sought to do in his new book “Re-imagining Britain” reviewed appreciatively on this site by Chris Baker.

Among these explanations you pays your money and takes your choice. However, if you are a claimant on Universal Credit you have next to no money as you encounter delays, arbitrary decisions and possibly sanctions. And in destitution when you go to the food bank, if you’re lucky you can make your choice between baked beans or tins of tuna, packets of pasta or packets of rice.

What, then, are we in the churches and communities called to do? In my work for Together Lancashire supporting churches and communities in tackling poverty together, we seek to offer education and to support claimants in a variety of ways, as well as campaigning for change and reflecting theologically on the stories we hear.

For instance, the Genesis account of creation begins with chaos brought into order, first of all by the shedding of light on the universe. Rapid changes in the benefit system is a scenario of chaos and complexity that government is failing to bring into order. Yet the mathematics of chaos and complexity theory suggests sometimes as a result of a small change in certain parameters something beautiful and hopeful may emerge (the so-called “butterfly effect”). Perhaps it could be new co-operative ventures regenerating sustainable local economies and providing work as in the Preston model, perhaps gracious generosity between friends and neighbours such as the emerging Common Change movement, or perhaps a welfare policy based on unconditional basic income for every citizen, which has Christian underpinnings (see Malcolm Torry’s book), would be simpler to administer, cheaper to the public purse, and would prevent anyone from slipping into total destitution.


More blogs on religion and public life…

Broken, Apologetics and Faith in the Media
Rosie Dawson

Finding Hope in a Post-Brexit Future
Chris Baker

Beyond the Veil of Modest Fashion
Yasmin Khatun Dewan

Social Theology after William Temple
Malcolm Brown


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