Universal Credit row explained as pressure mounts on Theresa May to change policy

Theresa May has been criticised over the policy. (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Theresa May has been criticised over the policy. (Picture: AFP/Getty)
Share this article
Have your say

As dramatic testimony goes, there will be few examples more arresting than that of the Scottish Government’s Social Security Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville discussing the impact of changes to welfare benefits on her constituents and other Scots.

Ms Somerville told a Glasgow City Council meeting that she had heard from benefit claimants who only ate on Tuesdays and Thursdays due to struggling with the roll-out of the Government’s new Universal Credit system.

READ MORE: Scots ‘driven to starvation’ by Universal Credit policy

She said: “When I visited the Citizens Advice Bureau, I saw that they put ‘starvation’ in the case study notes for someone.

“In this day and age in Scotland, we are talking about that because of a choice that’s being made by this Westminster Government on how to run a benefits system.”

It comes as more and more MPs, even from her own party, are urging Theresa May to rethink the policy, or use the upcoming budget to finance more support for those suffering under it.

We look at how the row developed and how it may be resolved.

A potted history

For something that is so complicated that the Government appears to be on the verge of scrapping it, it is important to remember that Universal Credit was originally supposed to simplify the benefits system.

READ MORE: McVey asks for extra cash for Universal Credit policy

The brainchild of former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit was hailed as revolutionary when it was officially announced in 2010 by Mr Duncan Smith and then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who claimed that 300,000 people would find work as a result of the scheme.

A way to merge six benefits into one, the Universal Credit system has been beset by problems since almost immediately after it was announced.

Rather than a ‘cliff edge’ cut-off under the old system (which left people who worked even one more hour than the 16 allowed losing out on benefits), those of a working age who claim benefits while in work will see the amount paid reduced proportionate to the level of work they are doing.

After what appeared to be years of the Government denying that some could lose out under the plans, which were introduced slowly over several years, Work and Pensions minister Esther McVey said that ‘tough decisions’ meant some would be worse off.

Scottish response

Early on, when the Universal Credit plan was just an idea and not a potential Government crisis-in-waiting, the SNP, then with far fewer MPs, gave a cautious welcome to the move.

In 2010, Eilidh Whiteford, then social justice spokesperson, said: “some of the measures set out today - particularly the universal credit - are very welcome”.

However, the party soon were at pains to point out the flaws in the Universal Credit system, coming amid ‘arbitrary’ cuts to the broader welfare system.

As delays have mounted up (the system, already 18 months overdue, is not expected to be fully operational by 2023) Scottish politicians have continued to set out their opposition.

The examples cited by Shirley-Ann Somerville in Glasgow earlier this week were grim, but they were not unique.

MPs of all hues have shared tales of hardship, but the SNP and Labour in particular have stepped up their attacks on the policy, with the former taking aim at Conservative backbenchers, and the latter accusing David Mundell of being ‘completely out of touch’ on Universal Credit.

The Future

The roll-out has yet again been delayed, but in certain areas, like Glasgow, a version of the Universal Credit system is in place and causing the kind of problems listed by Shirley-Anne Somerville and others.

The date is different from Job Centre to Job Centre, meaning that local MPs are putting pressure on Ministers to unveil wholesale changes to the policy, rather than local-based tinkering.

For her part, Esther McVey teased that their could be more money in the upcoming Budget, telling the BBC that discussions with Chancellor Philip Hammond were ongoing.

Even the original creator of the policy, Iain Duncan Smith, has urged Mr Hammond to inject £2bn into the system.

As Scottish politicians continue to echo the concerns of their constituents over the policy, which was designed to ‘streamline’ an immensely complex system, and as the changes continue to bite at an individual level, the row over Universal Credit will rumble on to the Budget and beyond.