Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton & Sunderland South
Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton & Sunderland South

Universal Credit in its current form is an unmitigated catastrophe, long in the making and now vast in its scale, the Ben Hur of public policy failure.

Today’s report by the Public Accounts Committee, which found a culture of denial at the DWP and a department adrift from the real-world problems of the people it is there to support, is a fresh indication of how deep the problems run.

For years, our reports have warned ministers that their “fortress mentality” has seen them turn a blind eye to the hardship Universal Credit is causing.

It is abundantly clear that what was sold as a simpler, fairer system, to help more people into work is none of these things.

Rhetoric has trumped evidence as the concerns of frontline organisations have been cast aside. From the research showing the link between Universal Credit rollout and foodbank usage, to the number of claimants falling into debt and arrears due to late payments or rejected claims, ministers have ploughed ahead.

Its defenders have clung to hypothetical claims about the supposed benefits of Universal Credit: little more than magical thinking.

With the Budget looming, the Chancellor is facing growing pressure from his own backbenchers to restore the £2bn cut by George Osborne. As with all of the Tories’ supposed solutions to this fundamentally flawed system, this goes nowhere near far enough.

The problems are less about delivery, and more about design. It is a system that is intended to make savings, and will therefore make people worse off – some by over £2,000 a year.

For those who I see in my constituency surgeries week-in, week-out, and who are already on the brink, the impact this could have on their lives does not bear thinking about. These are not the “shirkers” so patronisingly portrayed in the discourse around social security reform, but people who either struggling to find work or are in low-paid, insecure employment.

Of course, it’s not only those receiving Universal Credit who will suffer from this, but their families too. With over 2 in 3 children in poverty already growing up in working households, much more is needed to address the scourge of in-work poverty which is so shamefully prevalent in our society.

There are undoubtedly some short-term fixes that could make the system less likely to punish those it is supposed to help. Yet even in the unlikely event that Universal Credit undergoes the wholesale reform it clearly needs, it won’t be enough until the government fully addresses the structural drivers of the growing and avoidable poverty in our country that continues to blight so many lives.

This article first appeared in The Times Red Box on 26 October 2018. Click here to read it on The Times website (paywall).

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