First published in Huffington Post
On Monday 29 April the ‘revolution’ began. The government’s Universal Credit Scheme designed both to simplify the benefits system and disincentivise dependency on it began… in Ashton-under-Lyne. According to The Guardianthis historic shift would affect ‘a few dozen’ people on the Monday, increase at a rate of 300 people per month as the ‘pathfinder’ continues until October and then be rolled out across the country by 2017 (though even this is now in some doubt).
So this supposedly radical overhaul of the system – despite Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, describing it as a ‘fundamental cultural shift’ and the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) calling their jobcentre staff out against it – is nothing of the sort. The lather up into which both sides have worked themselves about these reforms (ahem, not a revolution) is something of a mystery. Despite, as Nick Pearce argues, doubts as to whether people will be any better off in work and the possibility even that more will be caught up in a permanent semi-dependent limbo of part-time work and benefits claiming; make it all the more surprising to discover that Universal Credit is still in fact little more than a ‘tidying up exercise’.
In his calmer moments Duncan Smith, whose rather poisonous Centre for Social Justice came up with the idea, admits as much. This is not Paris 1789 or the spectre-haunted Europe of 1848 anymore than it is a rising Dublin in 1916 or a revolutionary Russia in 1917. Sadly 2013 in Ashton-under-Lyne is only to be the beginning of a ‘perpetual process of rolling out and checking‘. Storm the barricades! Of course there is nothing wrong with this. As Matthew Oakley writes elsewhere for Huffington Post incremental change is perhaps more suited to this kind of thing. By doing things slowly and dealing with the inevitable difficulties that arise during implementation the problems can be addressed. There have already been the inevitable teething troubles albeit reported a little too gleefully.
For we are not witnessing, never mind partaking in, any such seismic changes but – with a little tinkering here and a little claimant bashing there – the piloting of a new and probably better way of administering the benefits system. For all that it is, as Oakley rightly says, a move in the right direction – even if that is as much backwards as forwards to the ‘contributory principle’ envisaged by Beveridge – the debate so far hasn’t gone much beyond the difficulties around implementing it. While I’ve little time for Duncan Smith and what he stands for, it is notable that even he feels the need to sound conciliatory rather than go on the offensive. He has made it known, for instance, that the application process for Universal Credit has been designed by claimants themselves. Not the sort of thing that I can imagine Norman ‘on yer bike’ Tebbit associating himself with. Perhaps the critics will cite this as evidence to support the fraudulent claim that far from making work pay ‘workfare’ expects them to work for nothing!
Universal Credit will replace a number of existing benefits and tax credits. It will also, by ‘tapering’ payments as people re-enter the workplace try to ease the transition into work and beat, like tax credits before them, the much maligned benefit trap. As well as the doubts raised by Pearce regarding these latter claims, one of the problems with Universal Credit is that it just isn’t universal enough. There are a number of other benefits and credits that will remain untouched by it and continue to deem the benefits system unnecessarily complicated. But it is the fact that claimants have to apply online and rely on a new government IT project not going disastrously wrong; and that they will be paid monthly salary-style into their accounts, that has caused as much criticism as any substantive changes contained in the reforms. It seems that the merest hint that claimants should be responsible for budgeting and at more than a fortnight’s duration; or that they, rather than their landlords in the case of housing benefit, should receive the payment direct; is enough to expose the paternalism in critics who envision more evictions as tenants spend their money in the bookies or on pay day loans rather than on paying the rent.
Even where they do find fault with the substance of the reforms as in the case of Nick Cohen at The Observer it, likewise, betrays the prejudices of a commentariat that has little regard for those they claim to defend. He seems to have convinced himself that by doing away with child tax credit, traditionally paid to the mother, Duncan Smith is engaged in a weird evangelical Christian conspiracy that will put women at the mercy of their misogynistic partners. But it is not right wing irrationalism or a fear of what men might do if they get their brutish hands on the Universal Credit that should worry progressive minds (if that is what Cohen is supposed to have). Rather it is the patronising knuckle-dragging cynicism of the anti-reform lobby that finds it as hard to imagine the workless finding their way around a computer keyboard, as it does to acknowledge that increasing conditionality or imposing more sanctions is at least more honest than hiding behind ‘the vulnerable’ at every evasive opportunity.