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- TV: Universal Credit: inside the welfare state
New BBC series - Insight or whitewash?
Karen Seymour, Mansfield Socialist Party
The BBC programme 'Universal Credit: inside the welfare state' is a series of three programmes on the highly criticised benefit system.
The first programme, set in a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) office in Peckham, south London, follows the experiences of both Universal Credit (UC) claimants and Jobcentre staff. However, the programme has been panned by some welfare claimants' groups as attempting to sanitise a failing system.
Billed as the biggest overhaul of benefits in a generation, UC, initiated by former Tory minister Iain Duncan Smith, rolls six working-age benefits into one monthly payment. However it is controversial, with more claimants losing out than gainers.
The civil servants union, PCS, whose members have gone on strike over properly resourcing UC, has previously commented: "The government's arrogant refusal to listen to its own staff, experts, charities, those affected, and even its own MPs shows their aim is not to help people, but to simply cut support from those who need it most."
Currently, there are seven million people on some kind of benefit. By 2023, it is expected that there will be seven million UC claimants alone.
If you make a new claim for benefit, or if you have a change of circumstances such as losing your job, then you have to claim UC.
One claimant featured in the programme, Rachel, who had spent 27 years working at Kings College Hospital, London, and had left to care for her mum, was forced to claim UC when her mum's health conditions improved.
She was given a Short Term Benefit Advance to tide her over until her first payment came through. But these loans must be paid back, and Rachel found herself £106 a month short, before she even thought about rent or food. She says: "You don't expect to be able to live a lavish lifestyle on UC, but you do expect to be able to live from one week to the next".
61-year-old Phil, who had been unemployed for ten years and had a history of drug misuse, felt forced to take a job cleaning trains for a private company contracted out from Transport for London (TfL).
This company was getting away with paying £8.25 an hour, while directly employed TfL workers were being paid the London Living Wage of £10.55 an hour. The job only made him £30 a week better off than he was on Jobseeker's Allowance. As Phil himself said, "I've joined the working poor".
Declan, 47 years old but looking 67, had recently been made homeless, and had been attacked while sleeping rough. He ended up with a place to live, but no money for electricity until his UC payment came through. He also needed to be referred to a food bank like many other claimants have.
Amber Rudd, who in 2018 became the sixth secretary of state for work and pensions after UC began in 2010, has only recently admitted to a link between food bank use and UC delays.
The programme took the viewer on a brief tour of Caxton House, the building in which the DWP is housed. The director general of UC, Neil Couling, showed us what was called the 'Mother Wall', which was the project plan for UC. This hideously complex structure contained things such as feedback from claimants, including a request to pay benefits on time, something which had apparently defeated the old legacy system for 35 years!
Jobcentre staff do generally care about claimants and want to help, but feel their hands are tied. Many are on such low pay they have to claim UC themselves, and/or take on extra work. Karen, one of the Jobcentre workers in Peckham, has to work another 16 hours on top of her job as an adviser just to make ends meet.
The Universal Credit system has been designed by people who will never know, or care, what it is like to be unemployed or on low wages.
Workers deserve better than a welfare system that treats them with nothing but contempt. So we demand:
- Benefits staff, claimants, trade unions and other interested parties must urgently build a mass campaign to scrap Universal Credit and the brutal sanctions regime - replacing them with a system that is fair and compassionate, with support into employment if required
- A minimum wage of £12 an hour, without exemptions, as a step towards a real living wage of at least £15 an hour
- A mass job creation programme with decent pay, conditions and trade union rights for all
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In The Socialist 12 February 2020: