THE Archbishop of York and the Bishop of Manchester have invoked scripture in their calls on the Government to improve the design and implementation of Universal Credit.
“Jesus had some pretty stern words for those who withhold payment from the poor, and I think, as Christians, we are bound to echo those concerns,” the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, told the Radio 4 programme Sunday.
The Government has insisted that it will press on with the roll-out of Universal Credit, despite concerns raised by an array of stakeholders. Frank Field MP, who chairs the Work and Pensions Committee, which is currently scrutinising the benefit, spoke this month of a “consensus for a pause that has emerged across parties and nations, fuelled by the unanimous and damning evidence we have collected from councils, housing associations, landlords, and claimants across the UK”.
A chief concern is the built-in six-week wait before applicants receive their first payment. The thinking behind this is that Universal Credit should mimic work, and receipt of a salary. “I know of no one who waits six weeks or more for a pay cheque,” Mr Field said last week, after hearing evidence from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke.
Writing in The Sunday Times, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that the design “seems to assume that everyone has a nest egg that will tide them over as they wait a minimum of 42 days for payouts. That assumption is grotesquely ignorant, because millions of people — especially those in need of support — are already in debt, and have nothing to fall back on.”
In a letter to Mr Field, Mr Gauke said that “those who need it are not left without support”. In July, just over half of new claimants received an advance. But he agreed that there was “more to do” to raise awareness of this support. His contention that 81 per cent of claimants were paid in full, on time, was challenged by Dr Walker on Sunday. It was “not good enough”, he said, and roll-out should be slowed down until confidence was won.
After agreeing that Universal Credit was “in principle, a really good idea”, Dr Walker also invoked the biblical reference to the servant with two masters. “It is intended to smooth the path to work, to make the benefits system simpler, but there is also increasing pressure from Government to use it as a mechanism for saving cash”.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is supportive of Universal Credit in principle, but has warned that cuts to the work allowance (the amount families can earn before their support starts to be withdrawn) will result in poverty for an estimated 340,000 additional people by 2020-21.
On the online news website CapX, the chief executive, Campbell Robb, wrote last week: “The current benefit system is fragmented, difficult to navigate, and traps some people in poverty. If fully implemented and properly funded, Universal Credit could be a revolutionary change to welfare. It aims to simplify the system, increase incentives to work, and smooth people’s transition in and out of work.”
In a JRF blog, he argued that the real problem was not Universal Credit but the freeze on benefits, “predicted to increase poverty more than any other policy”. In his article in The Sunday Times, Dr Sentamu spoke of the Bible’s concern for “widows and orphans”, and echoed calls from other bishops to end the freeze (News, 25 August). He praised the Government’s decision to scrap charges for the Universal Credit claimants’ phone helpline.
Universal Credit, first introduced in a pilot in 2013, replaces means-tested benefits and tax credits for working-age individuals and families. It is paid monthly, in arrears, generally directly to the claimant. Roll-out is not expected to be complete until 2022, at which point seven million people are expected to be in receipt of it.
A Freedom of Information request by The Observer, published last month, suggested that half of all council tenants already on Universal Credit, in 105 councils, were at least a month behind on rent, compared with less than ten per cent of council tenants on housing benefit. In March, the Government acknowledged that Universal Credit was having an “effect” on rent arrears for about a quarter of claimants, but argued that large numbers of those joining the scheme had pre-existing arrears, and that arrears were “likely to be of a short duration, cleared relatively quickly”.
An emergency three-hour debate on the issue was secured in the House of Commons on Tuesday by the Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth, Debbie Abrahams. Labour MPs queued up to tell stories of constituents who faced problems with the system.
The Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen, said that it was not possible to pause Universal Credit (“this is determined by statutory instrument”), but a one-month pause in January was scheduled. She proposed a “compromise”, such as reducing the wait for payment to four weeks.
Among the Conservative MPs who agreed with the need for reforms was Chris Green, the MP for Bolton West. He said that the Government was “delivering for the poorest”, pointing to falling unemployment figures; but he agreed that the new system needed improvements, including a reduction in the waiting period to four weeks.
But many Conservative speakers defended the reforms, pointing to improvements in the incentive to work. The Minister for Work and Pensions, Damian Hinds, said that three studies had shown that “people get into work faster with Universal Credit than they do with Jobseeker’s Allowance”. Implementation was happening at “very measured pace”, he said: in the next four months, Universal Credit take-up would grow from eight to ten per cent of the benefit-recipient population.