Universal Credit: The New, New Poor Law?

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The UK’s stance on poverty has recently come under the scrutiny of the United Nations, who argue that austerity measures have inflicted huge misery on the poorest in society. The number of those who live in poverty has reached 14 million, with 1.4 million of these being classed as destitute (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46236642). The misery of many families has been exacerbated by the move to Universal Credit, the government’s new benefits system. Under this system a single monthly payment is made to people out of work and replaces many of the old benefits which were paid separately, such as housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, income jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. When a claimant makes the transition to the new scheme, new assessments are necessary, regardless of any previous decisions which were made. People who in the past have been classed as unable to work are now being classified as fit for employment, and as a result many people’s benefits have been cut. As an indication of a system in turmoil, more than fifty per cent of those who appeal against their decision win.

In June, the New Statesman published Alex Tiffin’s Universal Credit diary, entitled ‘With six days to go, I have nothing left’ (New Statesman online, 11 June 2018). In it, Tiffin highlights one of the biggest problems with the new system: the time it takes to process the first payment. In his case, it took a whole seven weeks, and even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledges that it will take at least five weeks for most claimants. That means five weeks with no food, and no money for electricity, transport costs, rent and other essential services. It also means that claimants are in arrears from the very start, yet some essential payments, such as rent, of course, are almost always demanded up-front. The DWP’s solution to this conundrum is to offer advance payments which are then clawed back from an already inadequate monthly sum. Tiffin literally begged for his repayments to be reduced, but to no avail. His diary reveals the reality of poverty in twenty-first century Britain: he lives in the rural Highlands, so ‘extra’ services like broadband are absolutely essential, especially as he needs to check into his Universal Credit Account regularly or face losing it. He confronts a daily decision whether or not to switch off the heating and lie in bed to keep warm; to feed himself adequately he resorts to parcels from a local church-run foodbank.

The language of Alex Tiffin’s diary mirrors that of many of the paupers under the New Poor Law, who were often disabled or too unwell to work, and who faced similar decisions about whether to feed themselves or their children, whether to buy food or fuel for the fire.  George Briggs, an inmate of the workhouse at Great Yarmouth, wrote in 1853, ‘I suffer so much from Cold and as to food & Clothing are so miserably scant it past endurance with me I cannot bear it’; and he finished, ominously: ‘please God [I] prefer Death [rather] than remain here’. Another pauper, Frances Land, argued that the workhouse food was so inadequate that women in the laundry would ‘stand at the tub faint and hungry’. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that is being used once again by Britain’s neediest, thanks to Universal Credit. A manager for West Everton Community Council, for example, described it as ‘the slow killer, that’s what we call it round these parts’, and she went on to say that ‘it feels like they are trying every way possible to kill the poor’ (Huffington Post, 23 September 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk).

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Gustave Doré, ‘Waifs and Strays’

In many ways, the language behind Universal Credit is reminiscent of Samuel Smiles’ theories of self-help and perseverance. The government argues that the aim is to represent conditions closest to being in work, so that those in poverty learn to manage their money better; but, of course, the levels of ‘pay’ under Universal Credit are far below those of any remunerative employment (‘less eligibility’, anyone?). The system places a responsibility for paying rent and other housing costs on to individuals who, by definition, have no money and no credit, and then blames them for getting into arrears.  In other words, it all starts to feel like a new New Poor Law, and the discussions around it are very familiar to those who know anything about the original version. The aim is to ‘control spending’, to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits, and to ‘simplify’ the system by enforcing a bewildering array of bureaucratic checks and balances through which the poor have to navigate an uncertain path. Under the old New Poor law, it is clear that many paupers learned to work with the system as best they could, and there is every reason to believe that this will be the case with Universal Credit, too. But for every pauper who made it work for them, of course, there were others who fell victim to a harsh and uncaring system. Is this what is in store for Britain’s poor in the twenty first century?

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