Sadiq Khan just attacked the DWP. He should have saved his breath.

Sadiq Khan and the DWP logo
Steve Topple

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Universal Credit has come under fire from London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Sadly, his mealy-mouthed words are just an exercise in hand-wringing and sucking air through his teeth. It’s not a serious attack on a department and a policy which was actually designed to create an entire underclass; a class marginalised from the rest of society.

The DWP and Khan: face off

On Friday 31 August, Khan’s office published his verdict on Universal Credit. It’s the DWP’s flagship welfare ‘reform’ that rolls six benefits into one. It’s also one of the department’s most controversial policies of the decade; coming in for a barrage of criticism from all quarters. Many have called for Universal Credit to be stopped and scrapped.

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So, with this backlash, you’d think Khan would want to stay in tune with the public mood. But instead, he sheepishly put his pinkie above the parapet and essentially stuck out his tongue at the DWP.

Hand-wringing

As the Guardian reported, in a report for a consultation on Universal Credit, Khan said the benefit’s rollout should be “paused”:

We all want a simpler, fairer benefits system that improves the incentive for people to work, but universal credit in its current form falls well short of that…

If the government does not change tack, the chaotic implementation of this system risks causing considerable disruption to the lives of thousands of Londoners…

The most serious consequence… is that it will be the vulnerable who suffer the most.

Slow applause for the London mayor. Because he seems to think that Universal Credit is fixable. This is also the Labour Party’s official line on it: ‘pause and fix’. Despite calls from disabled people’s organisations and even Unite the Union, the party is still shoving its fingers in its ears; ignoring all the evidence in front of its nose.

Because everything points to the fact it is supposed to screw people over. And moreover, I believe that from its conception in 2007, it was always designed to create an ‘underclass’ of people in the UK, made up of the ‘undeserving’ poor. Because it is doing just that.

Universal Credit and Christian fundamentalism

Most of us know who Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) is; the so-called ‘grim reaper‘ and former work and pensions secretary. Some of you will know that he founded the think tank the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). But you may not know that Universal Credit was the brainchild of him and his think tank along with some people who are, essentially, Christian fundamentalists.

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.

The Institute for Government has detailed the history of Universal Credit. In short, IDS set up the CSJ just before David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005. Cameron then tasked IDS and the CSJ with rewriting Tory welfare thinking. Reading the CSJ’s first major report for Cameron, Breakdown Britain, you get a clear idea of where IDS’s thinking was heading.

Climbing the ladder, Conservative-style

The report outlined its author’s belief 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.

But also evident was the idea that the safety net of the welfare state wasn’t working. The report said:

The trouble with nets – even safety nets – is that people get tangled up in them. The longer one stays in a state of dependency, the less chance one has of escaping from it. Indeed, this is a condition that persists across the generations, with social mobility actually diminishing despite, or perhaps because of, the modern welfare state.

So, the CSJ conceived Universal Credit; fleshing it out in full in another report in 2009 called Dynamic Benefits.

Nudging away

This 372-page report outlined in detail the case for a single benefit for all sick, disabled and poor people. Its overriding idea was that work is the best route out of poverty; a vacuous phrase still echoed by Tories to this day.

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. The CSJ report also pushed the idea that:

Work is good for physical and mental health…

We now see this often discredited idea as a central part of government welfare policy.

The report also said:

We must continually encourage the desire for a job; and we must also clearly determine that a life on benefits, no matter what their level, should not be a sensible choice for those able to work…

It also envisaged that a single benefit would save the government money over the long term. So, Universal Credit was born. Cue the Conservative’s election to a coalition government in 2010; Cameron appointing IDS as work and pensions secretary; him, in turn, appointing Philippa Stroud from the CSJ to advise him – and the rest, as they say, is history. Kind of.

Victorian thinking

What drove all this thinking seems to me to be Victorian-era, Christian fundamentalist values. Essentially, the notion of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.

All of the contemporaneous CSJ work pushes the idea that it’s poor people’s behaviours and attitudes that must change, not capitalism. It, of course, ignores the fact that its five “pathways to poverty” are all symptoms of capitalism itself; not of people’s bad behaviour. But IDS and the CSJ couldn’t acknowledge this, as it would naturally render them, and the capitalist-driven Conservative Party, null and void.

So essentially, their thinking was if you’re poor, you made yourself that way; shown in the “pathways to poverty”. To stop poor people being stupid and making themselves destitute, the government needed to shake up the benefits system; to nudge everyone possible into work, and those in work into more work; making welfare reliance impossible. And anyone left? It’s their own, stupid fault.

So to do this, the CSJ created Universal Credit.

But it would also put all those unwilling to help themselves out of poverty and welfare into one place. Sick, disabled, unemployed and low earning people would no longer be different, distinct benefit groups. They would become one, homogeneous ‘underclass’ of people. And, as the CSJ and its gurus early thinking shows, the state would give minimal support to these people. Instead, charities and communities should carry the burden of this workless/underemployed group.

A dystopian nightmare

Universal Credit is the perfect vehicle for the 21st-century ‘Victorian mindset’. It sanctions low paid workers who aren’t doing enough to get more work; penalises lone parents; cuts free school meals; reduces support for disabled people with severe impairments. And, by design, it encourages people’s reliance on charity – note the rise of food banks.

Universal Credit’s history shows why, regardless of what mayor Khan might say, it cannot be ‘fixed’.

Its architects designed it to marginalise whole sections of society; to create a dystopian world where an underclass of people exists on its fringes. Couple this with the government cutting public services left, right and centre; homelessness rocketing; social housing decimated –  and we are seeing a nightmarish vision, once reserved for science fiction, becoming a reality. Universal Credit needs to be stopped and scrapped. But moreover, so does the Conservative Party – and capitalism itself.

Get Involved!

– Support the blogs Universal Credit Sufferer, Politics and Insights and The Poor Side of Life and get involved with Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), fighting for disabled people’s rights.

Featured image via Steve Punter – Wikimedia and UK government – Wikimedia 

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Steve Topple