By Lewis Payne
Theresa May has come under criticism from all sides of the political spectrum as the Universal Credit system rolls out to more and more jobcentres across the UK. The system is a new way of claiming benefits and it is set to replace to the six means-tested benefits that are currently available for claimants across the country by 2021. Despite criticism, the government has argued that changes are being made in order to ‘simplify’ the process of receiving benefits in a timely manner; reduce bureaucracy costs and making it easier for all claimants. Since it began rolling out, many problems have arisen for this key Conservative policy as political heavyweights, from Jeremy Corbyn to ex-Conservative Prime Minister John Major, have urged for May to consider a halt in the rollout and to review the system to ensure it is fairer.
So why the fuss? One issue surrounds one in five people on the system being made to wait six weeks before they are paid. The waiting time presumes that someone who has lost their job will at least be able to afford six weeks of living expenses. This is often not the case. With years of wages rising at a slower pace than inflation, it is no wonder that many people lack savings and will struggle to make it to the six week mark – instead ending up in rent arrears or relying on friends and family to ensure they are not sleeping rough. Iain Duncan Smith, the original architect of this system, has called for this waiting time to be reduced to four weeks; though many Labour Party MPs (including Shadow Secretary for Work & Pensions Debbie Abrahams) are unconvinced that this change will be enough.
The new system will also mean that people in work will begin to be sanctioned as the system will include benefits such as housing benefit and working tax credits – money that is used to help the lowest paid stay afloat. For part time workers, this will mean that receiving tax credits will be dependent on them taking ‘intensive action’ to find more working hours; though it is unclear how working more hours will be possible for many low paid workers who rely on zero-hour contracts for which they may need to stay readily available.
With May’s position of Prime Minister seeming turbulent as she is engulfed in the difficult brexit negotiations, another U-turn would do little to shake her ‘weak and wobbly’ perception. After being mired in criticism from her own party and the opposition alike, it is unclear what the future for Universal Credit will be. An emergency debate was held on tuesday to discuss the issues, with some Conservative backbenchers speaking out to say that their own party need to make compromises on the new system. Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke was not present for the important debate – with unconvincing explanations as to why. Perhaps sanctioning Ministers who fail to arrive for work would be a more effective policy than sanctioning the lowest paid who do.