Photo: Tottenham High Road from Alan Denney Flickr Photostream

The universal credit (UC) proposals involve amalgamating six pre-existing means-tested benefit payments and tax credits into one monthly payment. This new payment is purported to simplify an overly complex, bureaucratic system of social welfare. Simplification of the complex UK system is roundly endorsed as a good thing; however the actual detail of this process of simplification is far more contested and problematic. In late 2012, the Chartered Institute of Housing reported that under the UC proposals, 400,000 of the countries poorest families would have less income in 2015 than they had in 2010. Similarly, Disability Rights UK, in a report entitled Holes in the Safety Net, reported that 116,000 disabled people who work could lose £40 per week under the UC proposals. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) refutes both these reports, stating there will be no losers and indeed that the reforms will lift 850,000 families out of poverty. So which is it? It’s hard to say at this point. To state anything definitively would be mere conjecture, but given the government’s current activities in other spheres of the welfare state, I am not optimistic. In essence, the prevailing government view is one that embeds different sets of conditions for accessing benefits that were previously available without any conditions. The name ‘universal credit’ is at best a bad irony given the increased number of conditions it introduces.

For example, consider the conditions currently being introduced in relation to disability benefit, marked by the introduction of Personal Independence Payments (PIP). The DWP states that

“Personal Independence Payment is based on an assessment of individual need. The new assessment will focus on an individual’s ability to carry out a range of key activities necessary to everyday life. Information will be gathered from the individual, as well as healthcare and other professionals who work with and support them. Most people will also be asked to a face to face consultation with a trained independent assessor as part of the claim process.”

A number of disability campaign groups have expressed reservations about PIP. In addressing the PIP reforms, the group We Are Spartacus (WAS) point to changes to the criteria for the enhanced (higher) mobility component which determines eligibility for the “Motability scheme’. These state in order to qualify for the enhanced mobility component, claimants need to be unable to walk more than 20 metres, whereas in the consultation it was 50 metres. In all likelihood, far fewer people will be unable to walk 20 metres than 50 metres, thus reducing the number of people eligible for the scheme.

WAS argue this will result in people with “serious musculo-skeletal conditions, serious heart conditions, respiratory difficulties, cerebral palsy, neurological conditions, such as MS and ME and many, many more will no longer benefit from the scheme”, because they can walk a minimum of 21 metres. Increased levels of conditionality are also evident in the controversy around the ATOS administered fitness to work tests. That 38% of the results of these tests have been overturned when taken to appeal suggests some problems in the system.

The so-called bedroom tax marks the implementation of similar processes of conditionality, this time aimed at people in receipt of housing benefit and living in social housing. The government line is that these reforms will help contain the overall cost of housing benefit by ending the under-occupation of social housing. Under the new rules, residents under-occupying their house with one spare bedroom will see a 14% reduction in their housing benefit. Two or more spare bedrooms equal a 25% reduction. Liam Kelly, writing in the Guardian argues that far from reducing the £23bn housing benefit bill, these measures will actually increase it as people claiming housing benefit “move into smaller but more expensive private rented accommodation, which would have to further subsidised by the government”. In this instance, receipt of state support for somewhere to live is conditional upon you having no more bedrooms than you can actually use. Fair enough you might say, but this does not take account of the vagaries of local housing stock. These reforms will mean that nationally 600,000 one-bedroom flats will be needed to accommodate under-occupiers, but national housing stock shows only 300,000 such properties, and these are not always in the same areas. The net effect is the breakdown of extended family networks, or of people on lower levels of income taking a further reduction on that income in order to stay in their current house.

The last example in terms of new conditions of eligibility I want to consider is the workfare policy. It was recently declared unlawful, but it should be noted that this was on a technicality, not on principle. Under this scheme, people were required to ‘work for their benefits’, by undertaking unpaid placements with companies (amongst others), such as Tesco, Poundland, Argos, and Superdrug. The fact that it is felt necessary to compel claimants to work for nothing again underlines the dominant view of welfare claimants as skivers, and the dominant mode of conditionality is about making living on welfare as difficult as is politically possible.

As with on-going changes to the NHS and social care, this government has set itself an ambitious set of targets for the fundamental realignment of principles of entitlement and support in the provision of social welfare. Much of this realignment is being completed under the auspices of austerity, such that a fiscal crisis in public spending underscores the retrenchment of the state from welfare provision. Much of the moral justification for this retrenchment is given through a rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ versus ‘strivers’, where welfare is realigned to ‘reward strivers’ and punish those ‘scroungers’ who regard receipt of benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. This attitude across all sectors of the welfare state identifies (and vilifies) an undeserving poor. Universal credits will also do this by stacking the system in favour of those lucky enough to be able to secure employment. The problem with the current approach (across housing benefit, unemployment benefit, disability benefit and beyond) is that it individualises the need for welfare. It is (consciously) blind to the wider social, political and economic inequalities that really must be addressed if we are to truly begin to tackle these social (not individual) problems. Talk of ‘scroungers’ and ‘strivers’ and plans to incentivise benefits will only further marginalise those already on the periphery.

An edited version of this post appeared previously on the Society Central site.