Northern Lights: How Universal Credit has affected Sheffield families

When the all singing, all dancing Universal Credit was announced in 2010, it was lauded as a rationalisation of benefits that would roll up to six means-tested benefits into one, and a panacea to ameliorate poverty, while making work pay.

Ian Duncan Smith, the arch architect of Universal Credit, in 2010 claimed it would ensure that people would always be better off in jobs and that the planned rationalisation would save the nation £38bn by 2023.

However, since its roll out ‘pilot stage’, through to its promised full launch in 2017 and right through to it being held in abeyance this autumn it has been nothing but problematic. Duncan Smith claimed that instead of grasping the nettle, the last Government had watched as economic growth bypassed the worst off and welfare dependency took root, which he said resulted in the breeding of hopelessness and intergenerational poverty. Others in his Government replaced these words with ‘chosen idleness’.

Welfare support groups have been highly critical of the turmoil the pilot has brought. Expressing their deep concern at the potential it brings to cause diminutions in the living standards of families, due to inherent system flaws and the fact that Universal Credit has been formed out of an ethos aligned to and driven by the Government’s ‘harsh environment’ principles.

Pursuance of the multifaceted ‘harsh environment’ has caused untold suffering and unwarranted fear and foreboding to many, inclusive of members of our British Caribbean community and as we saw, Sheffield’s Caribbean Wind Rush community was not immune.

Then there was the dreadful punitive fiasco of those on Working Tax Credit being targeted, wrongfully accused of claiming this benefit. Sheffield families entitled to this support were stripped of much needed basic funding and forced to be reliant upon food aid provision and placed at risk of homelessness.

Sheffield MPs were inundated with parents in desperate states and despite welfare support and equalities agencies making representation against harms being caused and calling for these harms to be curtailed, they were ignored by Government. It was only following outcry and contestability in Parliament this was overturned.

Disabled people, including children and their families, were not bypassed by the ‘harsh environment’ ethos either, as claims were levied against them of them being shirkers and again undeserving of support. It has not been surprising for us in equalities and human rights to have found  cases brought against these decisions have almost in their entirety resulted in funding being reinstated to these people. 

While the Government said they brought in the ‘harsh environment’ to save money, their vanity flagship Universal Credit, has wasted millions since 2010. An example being the Government’s own Major Projects Authority agreeing to write off at least £140m of tax payers’ money on the Universal Credit linked IT project that was always a no-goer.

Instead of holding their hands up, the Government reverted to type, laying sole blame on civil servants, including the DWP permanent secretary, Robert Devereux, claiming it was he that had failed in the management of the £2.4bn universal credit scheme.

The Government would not heed their most senior civil servants’ advice, instead they steam rolled ahead and are putting blame upon their already overworked civil servants.

Even the recent budget bail out of Universal Credit is nothing short of putting lipstick on a corpse. 

This is an Emperor’s New Clothes way of working, in which Government seeks to surround themselves with only voices that echo their own, even when the course they have chosen to go down is a catastrophic one. This approach is not solely vested in the DWP, we saw it clearly in the DfE too, when Government despite knowing the imposition of GCSEs upon the early years sector would result in job losses, training providers going to the wall and nursery places being lost for some of our most vulnerable children, persisted down another vanity project route. 

What is needed is for Government to listen to those who say Universal Credit is not feasible, harmful and needs scrapping.

At times, even emperors, have the need to listen to the sound advice of advisors, especially so in this case, as it has come from those who proffer evidenced based advice. Advice, it seems, contrary to what they want to hear.