Why Scotland must rise up against Universal Credit and demand the powers to create real social security.

Universal Credit is the centre–piece of a Tory remoulding of social security into a mechanism for disciplining and punishing the working-class – and Universal Credit Full Service is currently being rolled out to replace means-tested working-age benefits across the UK.

A complete overhaul of benefits by a government wedded to cuts and incapable of imagining life outwith the establishment bubble – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, it depends what you mean by wrong. If you believe that the welfare system is there to give people social security, to provide a safety net when their own finances have failed, and a firm base from which to rebuild for the future, then the failure of welfare ‘reform’ is so completely catastrophic that it is hard to believe that any government could not respond and change track completely. But if, instead, you believe that welfare is a distortion of capitalism that interferes with market forces and must be cut to the minimum, then ‘reform’ no longer seems like the wrong word. When welfare support is stripped down, and life without work is reduced to a constant struggle for existence, then the ‘natural’ order of capitalism can return almost unchecked, with all workers afraid to complain about poor pay and conditions lest they find themselves without a job.

There may be a bit of collateral damage, but, if you believe government rhetoric, this is the result of people not taking control of their own lives; and removing the cushion of welfare will give them the push they need to do this. A central thread of welfare ‘reform’, running alongside and ‘justifying’ the cuts, is the idea that a person’s position is a reflection of individual skill and hard work, irrespective of social structures. If you are poor, it is your fault. If you can’t find work, it’s not that there’s none there, you just haven’t looked hard enough. If you consider yourself too ill or disabled to work, then you probably lack the right mental attitude. The myth of meritocracy is being used to justify otherwise unconscionable levels of inequality, and growing relative and absolute poverty. This is Tory Britain.

Politicians of all mainstream parties have been unwilling to condemn Universal Credit outright because tidying up our historical medley of benefits into a single payment seems like a good idea. But a replacement system should not be a mechanism for smuggling in benefit cuts and restrictions on individual freedom. In addition, ‘simplification’ should not be at the expense of ignoring the complexity of people’s lives, and any single payment system has to be super-efficient, as any delay will affect every benefit and can leave people destitute. The chaos that has accompanied the introduction of Universal Credit so far, with its IT glitches and under-staffed under-trained call-centres, demonstrates a criminal level of negligence. This has been compounded by a refusal to learn lessons from the disasters of the pilot areas, demonstrating that a properly functioning social security system has never been the aim.

Any benefit change will likely have both winners and losers, but under Universal Credit most people are losers. Universal Credit rules have been purposely devised to put extra pressure on recipients, and although when the benefit was launched in 2013 it was calculated that it would make the majority of receiving households better off, repeated raids by governments wedded to welfare cuts have ensured that this has been reversed, with many groups losing out annually by over a thousand pounds (see http://cpag.org.uk/content/austerity-generation-impact-decade-cuts-family-incomes-and-child-poverty).  This is not, though, about saving public money. Apart from the costs of setting up the new system, the government will have to pick up the tab for some of the huge costs arising from the extra pressures on health and social services as a result of this devastating disruption to people’s lives. Austerity ‘savings’ are just a smokescreen for what Naomi Klein has called ‘disaster capitalism’: the use of a disaster – often a disaster, such as the 2007 crash, caused by neoliberalism itself – as an excuse to bring in further neoliberal measures.

While attacks on the unemployed serve to control all workers, Universal Credit takes this a stage further by applying the same sanction regime used on ‘jobseekers’ to people in work. Universal Credit is replacing Working Tax Credits, and if you earn less than what you would get for 35 hours a week at the minimum wage, then in order to get the benefit you will have to look for more or better paid work, which means doing all the tasks the Jobcentre asks you to do or risk getting sanctioned. As these can clash with your actual job, you may well get sanctioned anyway.

The DWP defends Universal Credit with the mantra that this is ‘making work pay’. It is true that people working small numbers of hours no longer have to give up their benefit pound for pound, as with Jobseeker’s Allowance, but they still lose 63p for every pound earned – well over the 45p paid by top-rate tax payers. And, as noted above, cuts and restrictions ensure that for the majority of people claiming the benefit, including people who previously would have been on Tax Credits, the switch to Universal Credit represents a significant loss of money and freedoms. When the government tried to cut Tax Credits two years ago, the House of Lords responded to popular concern and rebelled, forcing them to think again, but the switch to Universal Credit incorporates cuts of a similar magnitude. That’s big cuts for low-paid workers, which are only marginally offset by the rise in the minimum wage.

Surviving on Universal credit can be particularly difficult for people whose earnings are irregular. Benefit payments are calculated monthly, and there is no scope for carrying earnings over into the following months to average them out. So, on the month you actually receive your earnings, your Universal Credit will be severely reduced. This can even happen when people are paid earnings weekly rather than monthly and so sometimes get five weeks’ pay in a benefit month, and it is especially problematic for people who are self-employed.  The self-employed will also be required to produce monthly accounts, and may well want to think again before setting out on their own – despite the government’s professed love of entrepreneurism. And despite all the condescending government rhetoric about people’s need to budget, the payment system is so complicated that many people have no idea how much they can budget on each month.

We are constantly reminded that headline figures for unemployment are relatively low, and this is quoted as proof that people are being encouraged into work; but low unemployment has been at the expense of widespread underemployment, low pay and job insecurity, including the growth of zero-hour contracts. The only thing worse than working in our insecure ‘gig’ economy, is not working in it.

Every piece of extra information we learn about this system seems to include a further loss of support. Of the other cuts smuggled in with Universal Credit, one of the cruellest must be the end of disability premiums – premiums that have been helping to make life more tolerable for around half a million people on both ESA and DLA or PIP.

On top of all the cuts, the life of anyone reliant on benefits is being regulated by ever more, ever stricter rules, with compliance ensured by the constant threat of sanctions (where benefits are stopped or reduced for a set period). An extraordinarily high number of sanctions have been given for things over which the person sanctioned had no possible influence, but even those sanctions that fall within the rules constitute a new penal structure specifically for the poor. Under Universal Credit the impact of sanctions has been made more severe. Most notably, although you can still ask for the less-than-minimal Hardship Payments in order to avoid complete destitution, these become loans paid back off future benefit payments, so you will be expected to manage on reduced amounts for 2 ½ times the length of the actual sanction.

Updating the SUWN’s Know Your Rights leaflet (https://scottishunemployedworkers.net/know-your-rights/), I became very aware of how many new rules I had to include, and how many fewer rights remained. It is no longer enough to take a logical and methodical approach to looking for appropriate work. You are required to spend 35 hours – the equivalent of a full working week – doing job-search activities, many of which will be of no use or relevance. You are not only deprived of your free time (and even the opportunity to use your time in a way that might genuinely improve your chances of getting a better job), you are not even allowed a holiday; and the requirement to do everything online provides an added impediment for everyone who doesn’t have an internet connection at home or hasn’t got good computer skills. If you are a parent caring for children, in order to continue to receive Universal Credit you have to start looking for work as soon as the youngest child is three.

For people who have been looking for work for over six months who are between 18 and 21, Universal Credit is bringing back the discredited Workfare system, where they can be mandated, under threat of a sanction, to go to unpaid work placements. This is not only grossly exploitative of those doing the placements, it also undercuts properly paid labour, reducing the number of paid jobs. These unemployed young people can also be sent on compulsory training schemes. When ‘employability’ training schemes were devolved, the Scottish Government recognised the importance of making these optional. But these new DWP schemes are not devolved and are compulsory and sanctionable. (That is why we are trying to get Scottish Colleges not to engage with them and give tacit support to the sanction system.)

Even some Tory MPs have felt the need to push for limited action in response to the nightmare caused by the built-in delay before the first Universal Credit payment. This delay has triggered an ongoing crisis of debt and associated worries, and over 80% of households on Universal Credit have fallen into rent arrears, with many facing eviction. There are no benefits for the first week of eligibility, and they are then paid a month in arrears; so even if all goes according to plan, which it often doesn’t, there is no money for five to six weeks. Many people will now be offered a Benefit Advance to tide them over this gap, but this is a loan that has to be paid back off future benefits. Signing up to Universal Credit is signing up to months of short rations, with households pushed into a cycle of problems from which they may never recover.

The full-rate UK benefit has already been condemned by the European Committee of Social rights as ‘manifestly inadequate’. This Benefit Advance loan could be for just half the amount of the full benefit, with benefits then reduced by 40% over the repayment period. That is simply not manageable. As I write it looks as though the initial wait may be cut to four weeks to rein in Tory backbenchers. While better than six weeks, this is hardly something to celebrate. (The Government has also agreed to end the hefty helpline phone charges, though they won’t actually make this happen until the New Year.)Too often we are expected to be lulled into silence by the Tories stepping back to a slightly less extreme policy than the outrageous plan first proposed. We can’t allow a small improvement to take the spotlight off Universal Credit’s all-out attack on social security. This concession, if it happens, should be seen as just a first small skirmish in the major war in defence of the welfare state.

Universal Credit is forming the framework of the Government’s welfare ‘reform’ strategy, but current changes follow on from decades of neoliberal attack, including the assault by the coalition and Tory governments in the name of ‘austerity’. Already this has brought us life-destroying cuts and life-limiting regulations, including the cap on the maximum amount of benefits a household can receive (despite the fact that benefits are supposed to reflect actual need), and a freeze on benefit levels that is in reality an increasing real-term cut for people already struggling to make ends meet. Tests for disability benefits have been made inflexible and purposefully more difficult to pass. Money allowed to those unable to work but still able to do ‘work related activities’ has been slashed by £30 a week; and tens of thousands of people have had vital mobility vehicles taken away, severely curtailing their ability to take part in society (including in many cases to do a job).

You are now expected to participate in a ‘Health and Work Conversation’, and discuss your ‘internal obstacles’ to achieving your goals, even if you have been deemed unfit to work or do work-related activities; and, notoriously, there is no help for a third child unless they were born as the result of rape. This last rule manages to combine eugenics with very personal intrusion, and on its own demonstrates something seriously amiss with a government that can not only come up with such an idea, but also refuses to recognise it as problematic.

Only too predictably, stress-related mental and physical health problems have become endemic, and the number of deaths directly attributable to welfare ‘reform’ is rising. A recent large-scale survey of GP patients found 15% of unemployed people said that they suffered from severe or extreme anxiety or depression – a 50% increase over four years (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/cuts-mental-health-unemployed-rise-government-welfare-reforms-blamed-a7841941.html). This only reinforces the understanding we have gained from the people we talk to outside the jobcentre. And this is before the full Universal Credit roll-out. I am a member of a Universal Credit support group on Facebook, where I occasionally post bits of advice. The number of desperate posts by people who have been left with next to nothing to live on is truly frightening, especially when they question if life is worth living. And if this were not bad enough, some of the responders have so absorbed the government’s ‘scrounger’ rhetoric that they will chastise other posters for not managing to survive on a pittance, as they have done.

The government’s attacks on our social security system have been carried out in stages, and so far the only significant resistance has come from those directly affected – with disabled activists forming an intrepid vanguard – but wider civil society has to sit up and take action. Perhaps the arrogance that has allowed the Tories to go (almost) full steam ahead with the widespread imposition of Universal Credit, despite evidence of a growing human catastrophe, can at last provide the catalyst for a co-ordinated resistance. We need to come together as a mass movement to defend the basic human right to a decent quality of live. We know that the UK government will not concede anything more than a few details, so we should demand the powers for Scotland to make a better system. Currently, the Scottish Government is largely limited to trying to prevent the worst impacts of Westminster’s austerity. It is, of course, important that we make the best use of the powers we have – and we in the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network have set up a petition calling on the Scottish Government to use the new tax powers to help mitigate welfare cuts (it’s still open so please add your name http://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/mitigatewelfarecuts) – but we need to move beyond this sticking plaster politics.

There has been a lot of interest in the opportunities created by a Universal Basic Income, including four planned Scottish pilots. This is a system that really does make work pay, as well as providing genuine social security, and moving towards a society that values other things beyond paid work. But we need a devolved welfare system to make this a reality. Despite all the Westminster propaganda, recognition is growing that the attack on benefits is a cruel and deliberate act by the Tory government, and we call on progressive Scotland to demand the opportunity to rescue the welfare state and set up a social security system that really works: a system that can be a model for others across the British Isles and beyond.

Sarah Glynn is an organiser with the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network www.scottishunemployedworkers.net.

In a Universal Credit Full Service area, everyone who makes a new claim for a means-tested working-age benefit will have to apply for Universal Credit instead; but if you are already on one of the earlier benefits (means-tested JSA or ESA, IS, HB or Tax Credits) you won’t be moved to Universal Credit for now. You can check when the full Universal Credit system is coming to your area here: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/scotland/benefits/universal-credit/before-you-apply/Check-if-youre-eligible-for-Universal-Credit.