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Bishop of St Albans backs call for a Universal Credit overhaul

01 April 2022

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THE Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, told the House of Lords last week that criticism of Universal Credit (UC) is “not going to go away”, and endorsed a report that calls on the Government to make substantial changes to the system.

Dr Smith said that he hoped the Government was “listening to the profound unease” about Universal Credit. He was speaking in a debate in the Grand Committee of the House of Lords on Wednesday of last week.

The report, Universal Credit Isn’t Working: Proposals for reform, was produced by the Economics Affairs Committee of the House of Lords. It was published in July 2020, but presented to the Grand Committee of the House of Lords only last week.

“The most fundamental question is whether universal credit is enough to live on,” Dr Smith said, especially in light of inflation and rising energy prices. The Chancellor’s Spring Statement on Wednesday of last week was criticised by anti-poverty charities for not doing enough to lighten the burden on the impoverished of the cost-of-living crisis (News, 23 March).

The report recommended changes to the way that sanctions are imposed against benefits claimants. Dr Smith said that there was “little evidence to suggest that the UK benefits-sanctions regime made a positive contribution to helping people find work, but that it did help in discouraging those who were unemployed from applying to the benefits system”.

Until reading the report, he said, he had been unaware that the Government intended to recover benefit overpayments from those who received them.

He described the decision as “extraordinary and unrealistic”, noting that the Government would be “taking pennies off the poor” despite having “written off £16 billion in Covid business loans” that had been paid “due to error and fraud”.

The report advised the Government to “write off historical tax credit debt owed by UC claimants”, saying that it was “highly unlikely” that the £6 billion tax credit debt would be repaid in full anyway, and that pursuing claimants, many of whom had been unaware that they had received overpayments, would “jeopardise” their financial security.

Dr Smith said that “as a general principle, I am absolutely committed to recovering debts”, but suggested that “if the Government deem it necessary to pursue these historic tax credit debts from UC claimants, I hope they will broach other debts with the same level of vigour.”

In conclusion, Dr Smith said that he hoped the Government would make changes to the system so that “we can attend to the disparities and produce a fairer and more just benefits system . . . that will help people to move into work in the long term, and find themselves in a position where they can be full and contributing members of society.”

The report concluded that the UC scheme requires “substantial reform”, but that it is “not broken irredeemably”. Among areas that were deemed in need of adjustment were the fact that payments are, by default, made to only one person in a household, and that payments are made and recalculated only on a monthly basis.

This is not the first time a Church of England bishop has made critical remarks on the administration or conception of UC. In April 2018, 60 bishops signed a letter condemning the “two-child limit”, which restricts support payments to the first two children in a family (News, 6 April 2018).

The report referred to research that suggested that removal of the limit would protect up to 300,000 children from poverty, concluding that the limit “penalises large families and can put the health and wellbeing of children in jeopardy”.

In October 2018, 32 bishops signed a petition calling on Government to “fix” Universal Credit (News, 19 October 2018).

In January 2021, bishops called for the £20-per-week increase introduced during the pandemic to be retained. The Rt Revd Paul Bayes, who was Bishop of Liverpool at the time, described UC as a “broken system”, but said that “cutting the recent boost will make it worse still” (News, 21 January 2021). The Government cut the £20 increase in October 2021.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was criticised at the start of March for refusing to release the findings of research into potential causal links between benefits sanctions and health issues, including depression, suffered by claimants.

According to a report in the Guardian on 3 March, Stephen Timms MP, who chairs the work and pensions select committee in the House of Commons, said: “A culture of secrecy is entrenched in the DWP.”

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