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Universal Credit - Fair and simple or designed to increase fear and anxiety?

A report from one of our members following a recent Glasgow branch discussion around Universal Credit and the impact it will have on working class tenants.

Based on Paisley Road West, and sharing an office with the Living Rent, WestGAP is an anti-poverty community group run by, and in solidarity with, people living in poverty. They provide a free, independent and confidential advice service covering welfare rights, housing issues, fuel poverty and homelessness, amongst other things. They receive no government funding, and are not part of any political party or organisation. Their service is free and open to all. They currently run weekly drop in sessions every Friday from 10-1pm.


Lindsey, a volunteer at Westgap, came to the Living Rent September branch meeting to talk to union members about the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC). The government has been rolling-out UC in the UK from April 2013, and it first hit Scotland in 2013, when it was trialled in Inverness. The first Scottish full service area was East Lothian, going live in March 2016. The new benefit displaces a raft of existing benefits: Child Tax Credit (CTC), Working Tax Credit (WTC), Housing Benefit (HB), Income-based Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), Income-based Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Income Support (IS). The benefit consists of a ‘standard allowance’ and five potential ‘extra elements’: child element and disabled child additions; childcare element; carer element; limited capability for work element; and housing element.


Lyndsey lives in Wishaw in North Lanarkshire, where UC was first introduced in March 2015 for new single claimants and has been in full service since April 2018. She says that services throughout the area have been overwhelmed by the fall-out from the new benefit. Indeed, the Trussell Trust, which monitors food bank use, has shown that food banks in the area have seen a 121% increase in demand in the last 12 months. Lyndsay told us that Job Centre staff are given suicide-prevention training before the benefit is introduced to an area, a fact that horrified and angered us as it shows clearly that the DWP are well aware of the harmful and sometimes lethal impacts of the poverty and destitution it creates. She said it is well known by frontline staff working in the DWP, food banks, claimant support groups and other support services, that self-harming and suicide rates have increased since the introduction of the benefit, but the DWP is refusing to release reports into the deaths of new UC claimants, breaching freedom of information (FOI) laws.


In Glasgow, UC was fully introduced in Govan on 19th September, with Newlands going live on 26th September, Partick on 31st October and Drumchapel and Shettleston in December 2018. Lindsay explained some of the differences between the new and the old regime (which was already bad enough itself). It’s worth remembering the history of these horrific and punitive benefit changes, which go back to the election of the Conservative government in 1979, and which showed no let up under Labour Party administration. Social Security cuts, lest we forget, accelerated in 2008 on the back of the global financial crisis. The Labour government scrapped Incapacity Benefit and replaced it with Employment and Support Allowance, complete with a Work Capability Assessment, as a desperate measure to win voters from the Conservatives, who were rising in popularity on a media-supported austerity platform. In almost the same breath, the same government announced a £500 billion bail-out of the very banks that had caused the crash in the first place. The Labour party’s 2009 Welfare Reform Act then abolished Income Support, ending non-conditionality of welfare in the UK, forcing all claimants onto either JSA or ESA, and introducing a regime of benefit sanctions for non-attendance at Jobcentres. This was a central part of New Labour’s Third Way—‘no rights without responsibilities’. The coalition government then introduced the Welfare Reform Bill in October 2010,which covered issues from workfare to fraud and benefit caps, focusing on conditionality, and therefore paving the way for a single working-age benefit.  Universal Credit was also announced, alongside cuts of £7 billion to the welfare budget over the next 4 years, in addition to the £11 billion of cuts already announced in the June 2010 Budget. That same budget left £9.3 billion in place for the London Olympics, and the government gave £612.58bn towards the bank bail out, down from its peak of £1.162 trillion in 2009.


As Lyndsey explained how the benefit actually worked, one thing that struck me was that the government’s pretext for introducing these changes--that of ‘simplifying’ the system--is a blatant lie. And as she responded to the group’s questions and concerns with an expertise built up through extensive training coupled with dealing with the reality of these benefits personally and in solidarity with others, it became apparent that these changes are here to discipline working class people, whether they are in or out of work, subjecting them not only to unprecedented levels of poverty, hunger and hardship, but also to a level of monitoring and surveillance that will surely cause terrible depression and anxiety. All new claims must now be made online, despite the fact that a recent government report found less than a third of claimants were able to successfully complete the applications online.Unemployed claimants must provide evidence they look for work for 35 hours per week via an online journal, and in-work claimants must provide similar evidence for the hours not worked. DWP telephony and Jobcentre staff, who were trained in how to complete the forms properly, previously carried out all this data input and information management. The burden of labour has now been shifted to the ‘customer’, as with so many other tasks, from ringing up your own shopping to booking your own holiday. These types of labour-saving strategies get rid of jobs, but somebody still has to do the work, only this time without pay and conditions. And as Lyndsey pointed out, many DWP staff are low-paid workers, often on temporary contracts, and many may soon be signing on themselves, whether they manage to keep their jobs or not.


In terms of housing, which Living Rent is particularly concerned with, Lyndsey said that whereas council tenants claiming Housing Benefit (HB) currently have their award paid directly to the local authority (LA), under UC the ‘housing element’ is paid automatically to the claimant, unless they request the payment be made to their landlord, which they can only do after the first month’s award has been made. Campaigners have argued that this will lead to an increase in evictions for those in rent arrears, as well as those facing poverty on benefits, as they struggle to budget the housing element for housing when they are in desperate need of other essential items. Research from the Registered Landlords’ Association (RLA) showed that as of September 2017, over a third of private tenants receiving UC were in rent arrears, 10% more than the previous year, with the average owed being £1150. They blame this largely on the up to 6-week waiting period for the first payment. In East Lothian, the first area in Scotland to be introduced to UC’s full digital service, three quarters of council tenants on UC are now in rent arrears, compared to 30% of council tenants not on the benefit. Others talk about rampant administrative errors leading to evictions. Research has shown that nearly three quarters of tenants on UC are in debt (£24 million collectively), compared with less than a third of all other tenants. The same study, carried out by Housing Associations federations, which represents over 1000 HAs throughout the country, found that over half of all HAs in England had reported an increase in the issuing of food bank vouchers since the benefit was introduced, and nearly two thirds reported an increase in the need for welfare advice to stay in their homes.


Conditionality previously only applied to core benefits, but now applies to the housing element as well, in more way than one. Firstly, under UC, if a claimant is sanctioned, their ‘housing element’ is affected, as well as their main award. Under Housing Benefit rules, claimants on a sanction continued to receive full HB payments. Sometimes they would have to contact the council to get their payments restarted, but they had full entitlement. Secondly, whilst the DWP could only make claimants repay a maximum of 5% of their personal allowance for rent arrears under the old system, landlords can now seize up to 20% of a claimant’s core award through the third party deduction scheme if their tenant has been in arrears for 8 weeks or more. When UC was first introduced, some tenants faced deductions of up to 40% for arrears of rent. When the Legal Action Group (LAG) campaigned for a return to the 5%, they also asked for guidelines to be made national, rather than each job centre having the power to set the recovery rate, leaving people unsure of what punitive measures might be used against them, depending on their postcode or simply the mood, disposition or political position of their advisor. As far as I can see, each jobcentre can still make that decision, up to a 20% maximum.


Another change that will have a massive impact on tenants is the fact that under UC, many young claimants will see their eligibility for HB removed. The Scottish government stepped in to mitigate these central government plans, and those aged 18-21 on UC in Scotland can now claim their housing element through the Scottish Welfare Fund. In England, however, 18-21 year olds have no elegibility for the housing element unless they meet one of 35 exclusions to the rule, although the government announced in March this year that they will eventually get rid of this rule.


In fact, UC is full of rules, and exclusions to the rules, and documents with 5 page glossaries at the end of them. They read like the rules to a game you can never fully understand. The government said UC would “restore fairness and simplicity” to the welfare system, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some groups have asked for so-called UC ‘flaws’ to be ironed out. However, I believe that these so-called ‘flaws’, ‘bungles’, and ‘glitches’ are all a well-designed part of keeping people in a state of fear, anxiety and surveillance. It’s not as though UC looks great on paper, but the computers can’t handle it; this benefit is punitive to the working class both in theory and in practice. Last month the Guardian reported that many claimants are left unable to predict how much they will receive each month and that identical claims receive different awards depending on what day of the month they’re made on. This leaves people unable to budget properly, and often results in their ending up in debt. This isn’t a case of a broken computer, it is the result of a carefully designed system. There is the added element that because each situation seems a little different from the next, the problem can be more easily mistaken for a personal one rather than a structural one. It’s been said time and time again, but I’ll say it again: Kafka wrote about this kind of thing.


We finished the session by asking each other how we might organise around these issues with workers and claimants from Westgap. Many people felt that an anti-eviction campaign would be a good idea. There are currently no statistics on eviction increases directly related to UC, but the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) have said they’ve seen a 47% increase in demand for rent arrears advice in the last 5 years. Housing federations across the UK have called on ministers to reform Universal Credit to “stop pushing families into debt” as rent arrears reach £24m.  As at March 2017, rent arrears on all council dwellings in Scotland was £64m, up 4% on 2016. These arrears have been rising steadily year on year since March 2013. The likelihood is that evictions will increase nationally as UC is rolled out more widely. Acorn tenants’ union recently launched a campaign with the Greater Manchester Law Centre (GMLC) and Disabled People Against the Cuts (DPAC) demanding that there be no evictions as a result of delays to UC payments. ACORN in Brighton and Bristol also have strong anti UC eviction campaigns. Another potential source of inspiration is the ‘eviction watch’ alliances which have responded to austerity in England.


Many of the victories that have come through previous campaigns, some of which are discussed above, are undeniably important (reduction from 40% to 20% of third party deduction rate; removal of 18-21 exemption from housing element; removal of the 7 day ‘waiting period’; a slow-down of the roll-out). These changes will have a real impact on many people’s lives, and the effect of such reforms cannot be underestimated. There is currently a ‘Stop Universal Credit Campaign’ by Unite the Union, and numerous other campaigns to Abolish Universal Credit, as well as many campaigns run by and focussing on particular groups that will be affected by the benefit (families with disabled children,, victims of domestic abuse, BME communities) There has even been a lot of (self-interested) landlord organising (both private and social) around UC, as they are terrified of losing a benefit that has really always been awarded to them—housing benefit. Private landlords alone received £9bn in housing benefit in 2016—double that of a decade ago. When I hear stories like that, I can’t help thinking that now that the UC housing element is being paid directly to claimants, there could be the real potential for building a rent strike amongst claimants as well as non-claimants, which could add a powerful new dynamic to the tenants’ struggle. After all, many of the most radical and successful campaigns of the past have been led by claimants or people not in formal or remunerated employment—think of the Glasgow Unemployed Workers Movement, National Unemployed Workers Movement and their hunger marches, the anti Poll Tax campaign or the Glasgow Rent Strikes of 1915, many of which were led by women


However, I wonder if an anti-debt campaign could be another route of resistance? Whilst many people face the ultimate horror of eviction, many, many more struggle with the day-to-day tyranny of debt. Debt is something we are encouraged to keep quiet about, something we are told we are supposed to learn how to ‘manage’, as though it were an illness. Debt is also built into the system to extract more money from the working classes. It seems that the creation and management of debt is a central feature of UC. Such debt affects housing not only through the ultimate possibility of eviction, but also through how we experience our homes: as places we cannot heat or maintain properly, places we are ashamed to invite others to, places we cannot escape from as we have no disposable income, places that are dangerous or uncomfortable because we cannot get repairs or upgrades done because we are in arrears. Which brings me back in a circle, thinking why don’t we just do a class war campaign, because that would cover just about everything?!!



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