IT is five years now since Universal Credit was launched in an attempt to simplify the UK welfare system. Had everything gone to plan, the system would have been up and running across the country by now. Instead, the policy remains a source of ongoing controversy.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, my greatest concern is for how this policy affects the poorest members of our community. In the Bible, we are called to uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. It is right that we look at the impact that Universal Credit, in its current form, is having on our poorest neighbours living in poverty.
The evidence, as it stands, suggests that the outcomes of Universal Credit are, in a great many cases, very negative ones. Many of our fellow citizens, already in a financially-fragile situation, have experienced increased hardship, desperation and hunger as they are switched over from the old system to the new. Jesus said ‘We are to love our neighbours as ourselves’. Would we like to be treated in such a way that makes debt and hardship practically inevitable?
People have already been struggling with rising living costs and stagnating incomes, but emergency food providers such as the Trussell Trust report that in areas where Universal Credit has been introduced, demand has risen far more steeply than in other areas. And even when people are getting regular payments, the system is often less generous than the previous benefits system.
The latest controversy centres around the way the Government plans to move the bulk of people across from the old benefit system to Universal Credit. Instead of the expected mass transfer, the Department for Work and Pensions will write to claimants giving them a deadline to apply for Universal Credit (which could be as little as a month). If they don’t claim, their existing benefits will stop on that date. And if they do later claim Universal Credit, they won’t get transitional protection which is designed to ensure an individual doesn’t lose money at the point of transfer if the new system is less generous.
This week, The Yorkshire Post has been shining a spotlight on this issue across our region, and has recounted stories of people being swept further into poverty by the long wait for initial payments, administrative errors and a system that appears inflexible.
Last year, the Government listened to the calls for change, and made some alterations to Universal Credit, reducing the waiting time for the first payment from six weeks to five and scrapping charges for phone calls. Those were welcome moves, but the case for further change is increasingly strong.
In Huddersfield, Church Action on Poverty spoke with a man who had waited 10 weeks for his first payment, and who had to turn to the local food banks. In South Yorkshire, they met someone who had waited even longer – four and a half months. He was fortunate that he had an understanding and patient landlord. Others are not so fortunate. In Leeds, one of the city’s Trussell Trust food banks met a family who had been told their payment for a month was 2p. And in Sheffield, the city’s leaders, churches and food banks fear huge increases in hunger and are drawing up contingency plans ahead of the roll out of Universal Credit there. They have been spurred into action by the stories emanating from other towns and cities.
Let us consider that last point. The fact that communities are dreading the implementation of what is supposed to be a welfare policy, and feel the need to make such anxious preparations, should make us all think again. This is not the way a just and compassionate society treats its poorest and most vulnerable.
When people find themselves in great difficulty, they are in danger of falling into a downward spiral. They may be tempted to turn to high-cost lenders, they struggle to pay essential bills, they have to cut back on their outgoings, risking isolation and ill-health. And, inevitably, they have to cut back on their household’s food.
The End Hunger UK campaign, a coalition that includes the Church of England and many anti-poverty charities, has set out potential improvements. First, we urgently need improved flexibility and support for people applying for and receiving Universal Credit. Secondly, the policy must not leave people at risk of debt and destitution. Thirdly, we need a lasting commitment that Universal Credit will provide people with an adequate income, so they can keep their heads above water and afford good food. The real challenge for people in poverty is income inequality.
If those changes can be made, then Universal Credit still has the potential to be a successful, effective policy, and one which makes work pay a Living Wage – and not the present so-called National Living Wage (topped up minimum wage).
Our churches will continue to show the love of Jesus in their neighbourhoods. We will continue to run community projects; food banks, holiday clubs, breakfasts for children, debt advice, support for those who are struggling. Our churches are places of welcome where all can find a home. The Government should take immediate steps to support many people who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in desperate circumstances. I urge them to think again.
Dr John Sentamu is the Archbishop of York.