The government has announced it will scrap the hated 55p-a-minute charges to call the helpline for Universal Credit. The backdown is the result of a successful campaign by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It will provide relief to some 8 million sick, disabled and job-seeking people across the country who will potentially be affected by the benefit rollout.
What is Universal Credit?
Universal Credit is, on the surface, a smart idea. The plan was to roll six benefits (income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit) into a single benefit. But the government’s design of payments and implementation has been little short of disastrous. As Nicholas Timmins, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, writes:
Under the old system, the goal was to pay benefits within two weeks of a claim. Under Universal Credit, there is a formal waiting period of one week with no money, with the benefit then being paid monthly in arrears – the intention being that this more closely mirrors what it is like to be in a job. In practice, many of those earning less than £10,000 a year are in fact paid weekly.
The effect of this ‘discipline’ in practice has led to an in-built wait of six weeks before people get their cash – three times as long as the old system – and the Department for Work and Pensions admits that in around a fifth of cases it is failing to meet even that target, partly because of the information demands it places on the claimants.
Waits of ten or twelve weeks are not uncommon.
The overall effect has been to plunge people already on low incomes into rent arrears and debt and in some cases homelessness. In others cases, it has caused job losses – the very opposite of what Universal Credit is intended to achieve.
And if those affected wanted to speak to someone to seek help, it would cost them 55p per minute to do so.
The Commons Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence from local councils, food banks, housing associations, and charities on the impact of Universal Credit. The testimony established that the botched implementation was causing mass harm and dysfunction. In areas like East Dunbartonshire, a whopping 92% of tenants on Universal Credit were forced into rent arrears by late payments.
A united opposition of charities, campaign groups, activists, new media, and politicians have defeated the government. The relentless campaign culminated in Corbyn’s heated assault on May at Prime Minster’s Questions. The Labour leader demanded the government scrap the call charges, stating [09:41] that it was just one of a “string of failures of this government”:
Everywhere you look it’s a government in chaos. On the most important issues facing this country, it’s a shambles.
Brexit negotiations made no progress. Bombardier and other workers facing redundancy. Most working people worse off. Young people pushed into record levels of debt. A million elderly people not getting essential care. Our NHS at breaking point…
This government is more interested in fighting amongst themselves than in solving these problems… Isn’t it the case… that if a prime minister can’t lead she should leave?
Within a week, Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke has scrapped the charges. But many hope that implementation of the benefit will be scrapped altogether if pressure is maintained.
A time for pause
Both Labour and the SNP support calls to pause implementation of Universal Credit. The SNP’s Rona Mackay, MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, said:
The accelerated roll-out of Universal Credit mustn’t be allowed to happen. People are sinking into poverty with having to wait six weeks for their first payment, forced to become indebted. The application can only be made online, which is a disaster for many disabled people, and on average claimants have had to call the helpline ten times. Universal credit is emblematic of the bitter and cruel treatment of people under this UK Tory Government.
Gauke’s announced call charge scrap comes the same day MPs will debate a Labour motion to pause the Universal Credit roll-out. And while the vote is non-binding, it will add considerable pressure on the May government. It is reported that up to a dozen Conservative MPs are ready to rebel on the issue.
Tories have finally listened to us on helpline charges for claimants. They should now vote for our motion to pause Universal Credit roll out https://t.co/YBUtys21Dl
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) October 18, 2017
— Tom London (@TomLondon6) October 18, 2017
Next step – stopping the roll out of this Universal Credit shambles. https://t.co/xmXA4rnWCq
— Chaaaarghley Wicks (@charley_wicks) October 18, 2017
Time to act
Theresa May’s disastrous election cost her the majority which would have protected her against this pressure. Her minority government cannot win without maintaining unity on its own benches, and concessions from those on opposing benches. There hasn’t been a better time to force the roll back of austerity. Already, Labour and other anti-austerity opposition parties are beginning the job.
– Find out more about the Citizen’s Advice campaign on Universal Credit here.
Featured image via Flickr Creative Commons