The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) got somewhat of a gift on Wednesday 22 May. It came in the form of a UN report by Philip Alston. And while much of the media has focused on his scathing criticism of successive UK governments, it missed the most important point. It was that Alston effectively gave the DWP a ‘get out of jail free’ card over Universal Credit.
The DWP and the UN
If you are reading this and don’t know much about the controversial new benefit, then you can read The Canary‘s excellent coverage here. In short, Universal Credit rolls six previous welfare payments into one. But controversy has marred it – from increased food bank use to homelessness. Now, and for the fifth time, the UN has got involved.
Alston is a UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. He visited the UK in November 2018 on a fact-finding mission. His aim was to see how successive governments’ austerity programme, welfare cuts and Universal Credit had affected people. And on 22 May he released his analysis.
You can read it in full below:
14 million people living in poverty, record levels of hunger and homelessness, falling life expectancy for some groups, ever fewer community services, and greatly reduced policing, while access to the courts for lower-income groups has been dramatically rolled back by cuts to legal aid.
He also noted [pdf, p5]:
It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens…
But Alston also focused on Universal Credit.
He talked [pdf, p11-14] about the benefit’s “shortcomings”, including:
- Food bank use increasing where the DWP has rolled it out.
- Government treating claimants like “guinea pigs” with its “test and learn” approach.
- Ministers dismissing his concerns.
- The “perverse” and “catastrophic” five-week payment wait.
- “Punitive” sanctions.
- The flaws in Universal Credit being online only.
But he also had some praise for the benefit. He said [pdf, p11]:
Consolidating six different benefits into one makes good sense, in principle.
And he noted [pdf, p4] a:
welcome increase in work allowances, as a consequence of which an estimated 2.4 million households will be better off in 2019,10 and some 200,000 people will rise out of poverty.
But overall, he was highly critical. Problem being, that Alston merely scratched the surface of the catastrophe.
A fault in his argument
By agreeing with the benefit in principle, he fails to understand that Universal Credit is designed to be punitive, vicious and chaotic. This is not government error or failings. And it will not change.
It’s a very concerning flaw in his analysis which in some respects makes much of his other commentary redundant. Here’s why I think that.
A potted history
The overriding notion behind it? That everyone who can do even the smallest bit of work, should. This would, in turn, end welfare ‘dependency’. The thinking was also to reinstall marriage as central to society. All this would herald a return to a Victorian-like era; one where charity and philanthropy support sick, disabled and poor people – not the government.
I continued by explaining that the first major report by the CSJ in 2006, for the opposition Tory Party under David Cameron, outlined that:
poverty and welfare dependency were not due to capitalism’s inequalities. But that poor people and their reliance on welfare existed due to “pathways to poverty”: “family breakdown, education failure, economic dependence, [welfare] indebtedness and addictions”. Solve these, and everyone has “the chance to climb the ladder”, as the report put it…
Central to this was ‘dynamic modelling’, the idea of creating a system that changed people’s behaviour to get them into work (see Kitty Jones’s excellent work on “nudge theory”). Essentially, this meant cutting people’s money so they had no choice but to get a job. Or, in the case of in-work benefits like tax credits, cutting them as people started earning more.
A digital workhouse
We’re back to Alston’s “digital and sanitized” 19th century workhouse analogy again. That is, Universal Credit is the digital equivalent of a workhouse. It will push all the people who were of no use to the system (that is, had little monetary value) under one roof: severely disabled, sick and chronically ill people, those living with mental health issues, single mothers and the ‘work-shy’. All housed in a virtual workhouse. Segregated from the rest of society. A truly dystopian nightmare.
Meanwhile, and as if by magic, to coincide with Alston’s report release the DWP launched it’s heaviest propaganda offensive yet: a massive splash in the Metro:
Of course it’s not magic. It’s part of an ongoing campaign by the DWP to sell its most draconian policy as something positive. Campaigners have been vigorously opposing Universal Credit for a while, now. But if you believe YouGov polling, neither the DWP nor activists are shifting public opinion on the benefit.
The pollster reported in October 2018 that public opinion over Universal Credit was divided:
The confusion and working class division over Universal Credit is evident on our estate.
On the one hand, we have a friend who works in the gig economy and is struggling with the tapering of the earnings floor under the benefit.
Then we have another friend, a single parent of three, who thinks Universal Credit is a great idea. Despite still using food banks they are all for it.
Failing? It’s intentional.
Alston said in his report that with Universal Credit, successive governments were guilty of:
failing to properly design a system that is meant to guarantee the social security of so many…
On the contrary. Successive governments and the unelected civil servants have designed Universal Credit perfectly. And its roll out is going pretty well to plan.
It was always meant to be chaotic. The more confusion and difficulty experienced by claimants, the more potential claimants would be put off applying for it. It’s the same notion of poor prison conditions being used as a ‘deterrent’ to put people off committing crime.
So, the worse Universal Credit is, the more people will fall off the edges of society or get any work they can. It will leave those in the greatest of need reliant on it, stuck in this virtual workhouse.
Half-baked analysis. Game over?
Alston has done nothing to hasten the benefit’s demise. In fact, all he’s done is given the government and DWP ammunition to tinker a bit more around the edges if they want to. His report comes in a long line of UN reports and a Human Rights Watch one just this week. All were scathing but in reality all were useless.
His half-baked analysis and ironic tinkering around the edges (which Alston criticised the UK government for doing) is of no help to the millions of people suffering in the UK. It will be forgotten in a matter of weeks. And the barbaric roll out of the dystopian Universal Credit will continue.
It is again down to activists to spread the word in their communities, apply pressure on political parties and ultimately do everything they can to bring about the demise of this wicked, nightmarish horror.