Ella Abraham, Policy and Campaigns Officer
Last week Director General of Universal Credit (UC), Neil Couling, shone a painfully glaring light on the Government’s discriminatory attitude towards those struggling most in our society. In a talk on UC hosted by the Resolution Foundation, Couling attempted to explain the Government’s reason for ‘uplifting’ the rate of UC by £20 a week (bringing its weekly standard allowance rate to £94) but not giving that same uplift to the millions of people on legacy benefits (benefits that existed before UC such as Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance and Income Support). These people on legacy benefits are living without this much needed additional support, and millions have been left behind struggling on £74 per week. Couling said: I “wanted to help people affected by the pandemic and what I said was that meant I couldn’t create a new class of benefit claimants pre-covid and post-covid on Universal Credit, so for want of a phrase, there was a kind of windfall gain for existing Universal Credit claimants.”
Words matter. Actions (and lack thereof) matter too.
What Couling is saying here is two-fold. The first is that those ‘people affected’ by the pandemic that he and the Government intended to help financially, are the ‘new class’ of people who’ve lost their jobs and are experiencing how difficult it is to live off such low income. What Couling is also admitting by not saying it, is that the Government don’t see or acknowledge that the millions of people on legacy benefits are also those ‘people affected’.
Thérèse Coffey, Work and Pensions Secretary stated something similarly discriminatory when she said: ‘We are focusing on new claimants.’ Both statements infer one group is more worthy than the other. It prioritises new claimants who have recently become unemployed, over those that have been relying on the welfare state for some time. The welfare state is supposed to be a safety net for everyone, not just new claimants.
There are two complimentary excuses the Government are repeating for why they are leaving millions behind. Neither hold up to scrutiny. Here’s why:
Excuse One: The legacy systems are not agile enough
We know income changes can be applied to legacy benefit systems. In fact, legacy benefits were increased by a mere 1.7% earlier this year. The Department for Work and Pension (DWP) Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield said the rate of legacy benefits could not be changed quickly due to older computer systems. The clear solution is to stop delaying the process and make the change needed now for all those who are currently being left behind. Couling recently intimated it would take five months to implement an uplift in legacy benefits. Z2K is confident that those living on legacy benefits would be willing to wait five months if necessary and for the difference to be backdated. Computer says no is no excuse.
Excuse Two: People could move onto UC if they want to see the uplift
This simply isn’t true for hundreds of thousands of people. There are those in receipt of the Severe Disability Premium (an extra amount to help with the costs of disability) who legally cannot apply for UC. And there are also people who, if they moved on to UC to get the uplift, would lose their right to transitional protection. Transitional protection is an extra amount that is added to an existing claimant’s benefit entitlement in situations where they would be worse off financially by moving onto UC. However, it only applies when a person has been moved to UC via ‘managed migration’ – which has been paused due to the pandemic, so will not cover individuals making a new claim as a result of Covid-19. There is also significant evidence as to the financial and emotional hardship that moving to UC causes families, including increased foodbank usage and accumulation of rent arrears.
Now, amidst a public health crisis when poverty rates and the costs of essentials are rising and there is uncertainty around employment, is not the time to be pushing people onto UC by the back door, particularly given the long term implications of doing so. This incentivisation and encouragement for more people to claim UC only serves to benefit DWP’s questionable agenda. Ministers have recognised the need for an increase in benefits, they must now do so for the millions of others left behind. No more excuses.
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