Amber Rudd finally said the unsayable about food banks and universal credit. The problem is, what happens now?

For years the DWP maintained that ‘universal credit is working’ in the face of evidence to the contrary. Now it is telling a different story

Amber Rudd admits Universal Credit failings for first time

Amber Rudd has finally said the unsayable: British food banks are facing unprecedented demand because of the government’s failures to manage the introduction of its new benefits system, known as universal credit.

The statement, the first admission that the welfare system is implicated in the well-documented rise in food poverty, cannot be uncalculated. Someone, somewhere, deep inside the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has decided that gaslighting the public over the devastating effects of leaving poor people with nothing to live on for five weeks, while the administrative cogs rotate slowly, isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Perhaps the turning point was the emaciated image of Stephen Smith, denied benefits and told to look for work despite chronic illness that had left him weighing less than 6 stone and unable to walk.

Of course, this particular sorry tale is an outlier; the photograph of the victim still retained the power to shock despite the story of benefit claimants being moved on to universal credit and left destitute becoming a constant background hum. But it pointed so visibly to a wider truth that could no longer go unacknowledged.

The welfare state was designed, following the Beveridge report, to prevent “want” and “squalor”, among other “giant evils” of post-war British society. This is a task at which it is now clearly failing. So now this has been publicly admitted, what next?

That’s the problem with this overdue admission of complicity from the work and pensions secretary and her department. At this late stage, universal credit cannot simply be reversed. The government knows that – and that, one imagines, is exactly why the DWP now feels confident enough to admit to some of its errors, protected all the while by the passage of time and the complexity of undoing what has already been done.

The white noise of benefits failure has been playing on loop for so long that recent history is easily forgotten: the reason the Labour opposition under Ed Miliband did not fight harder against the introduction of the universal credit system is because the theory of reducing a huge list of benefits into a single monthly payment that resembles a take-home pay packet is patently a good and sensible one.

The problem was never with the theory, and always with the implementation, for which Iain Duncan Smith is running a close race with Chris Grayling for biggest botched job of the century so far.

There were three major problems with the practical introduction of universal credit, all three of which have contributed to a rise in hunger and the use of food banks.

First, the technology designed to manage it has – with yawn-inducing inevitability – failed to keep up with the philosophical ambition of the redesign of the system.

It is supposed to live-track benefit claimants week by week, as they move in and out of work or as other personal circumstances change, tailoring their payments to their exact life circumstances.

Who could have guessed that a government IT project of this level of sophistication could possibly go wrong? The delays in the system, which are pushing many into extreme poverty and even destitution, are often a symptom of this nightmarish “computer says no” dystopia. It needs fixing, but fixing it will prove costly and it, in fact, could be impossible to realise the original vision of universal credit.

Second, the delay to first benefit payments is intended to mimic real work, in which it is quite normal to wait up to six weeks for a first pay packet. If you’re a civil servant in Whitehall, that is.

From the off, universal credit’s efforts to shift people into a pattern of spending and family budgeting based on monthly income and outgoings failed because so many people on low incomes actually budget week to week – even day to day – and are also paid either weekly, on a shift basis or ad hoc in hand.

It’s not reasonable to expect such a significant lifestyle change in claimants, nor is it possible for the IT system to mimic daily or weekly payment. So, what to do?

Finally, under universal credit, means testing has become a punitive regime designed to drive the numbers of benefit claimants down.

That’s why cases like Stephen Smith’s emerge. So much has been written about the moral vacuum that has allowed this technique to be sustained that I will not repeat it again now. But remember this: less than half of those on universal credit (45 per cent) are actually categorised as looking for work, and yet the entire benefits system is predicated on the “normal” claimant being someone who can be moved back into work. What becomes of the rest of them, who may need support in some form for a lifetime?

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The Trussell Trust, which operates the vast majority of food banks in England, provided an emergency package of three days’ worth of food to 685,048 people between April and September last year – a 13 per cent rise on the previous year. The number keeps on rising. Its plea to the government is to pause universal credit until the wait of five weeks for that first benefit payment can be forced down. That is one step that Rudd could now take if she wants to demonstrate her words will also mean action. It won’t, though, solve any of the bigger structural issues with the policy.

But the danger is that this week’s admission of the failures of universal credit will lead to a Ministry of Truth-style rewriting of recent history.

For years the DWP and its representatives parroted the catchphrase “universal credit is working” even though anyone who either looked at the figures (one presumes the DWP wonks do actually do this sort of thing) or met anyone dependent on the new benefits system (one hopes that they get out Whitehall and do this too) could see that this was never the case – and loudly, publicly kept on saying so.

Now it is telling a different story, but for how long?

Universal credit cannot be scrapped – an uncomfortable truth – but it also cannot work effectively until the government admits all its problems, not just the ones so blindingly obvious they cannot be ignored any longer.

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