In-work poverty laid bare: 40% of DWP staff working on Universal Credit are entitled to claim it – Richard Leonard

Labour will reform Britain’s benefits system and its Kafka-esque sanctions procedure and aim to abolish in-work poverty within five years, writes Richard Leonard.
Staff at food banks report one of the main reasons people are referred is a delay to benefit payments (Picture: Neil Hanna)Staff at food banks report one of the main reasons people are referred is a delay to benefit payments (Picture: Neil Hanna)
Staff at food banks report one of the main reasons people are referred is a delay to benefit payments (Picture: Neil Hanna)

In the early 1970s, in the depths of another Tory government that didn’t understand, let alone care about, working people in Glasgow or Dundee (or Glamorgan or Doncaster, for that matter), the trade unionist Jimmy Reid raged that “from the very depth of my being, I challenge the right of any man or any group of fellow men, in business or in government, to tell a human being that he or she is expendable”.

Whilst the last nine years has seen precisely that attitude dominate the highest levels of government, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is proposing to radically reform our benefits systems, in order to make it fit for human beings.

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After successive Conservative and, let no one forget, Liberal Democrat governments, the situation is now so desperate that 14 million people across the UK (a fifth of the population) now live in poverty, including 4.1 million children.

By the account of Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, we have seen the creation of “a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse”. In truth, our people cannot take much more of this.

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And yet, as Jeremy Corbyn affirmed when he was elected Labour leader in 2015, “things can, and they will, change”. Labour’s plans for welfare and benefits, announced back in September, centre on social welfare, not bureaucratic sadism. Our aim in all that we do in government will be to recognise the innate potential and dignity of each individual who needs to make use of the safety net.

Abolish in-work poverty

We will treat the lone parent, the skilled craft worker made redundant after a lifetime of labour, the carer struggling to look after a disabled child as a human being, not as a statistic.

By ending the benefit cap and the two-child limit, we will immediately prevent a further 300,000 children being pushed into poverty and make a meaningful contribution to our goal of abolishing ‘in-work’ poverty within our first five years in office.

Needless to say, the unbelievably callous ‘rape clause’, which sees women who give birth to children which are the product of rape ordered to disclose tthis to faceless government agencies, will go.

And, in spite of their attempts to portray themselves as somehow different from their party down south, it is worth noting that the Scottish Tories have consistently supported this measure.

The Kafka-esque sanctions system has routinely seen more than one million people each year having their payments stopped for reasons ranging from the trivial – one JSA claimant was sanctioned for attending a job interview – to the tragic – another was sanctioned for missing an appointment; he was attending to his partner who had just had a stillborn baby. It will be immediately suspended and scrapped and replaced altogether.

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The deliberately malevolent ‘in-built’ delay for Universal Credit, which sees claimants moving from jobs where they were often paid weekly to waiting at least five weeks (and often longer) for their first payment, will also be abolished.

Eviction after benefit payments delayed

The results of this policy, which would take a twisted imagination to invent, have been deleterious; according to the Trussell Trust, to take one year, 2017-18, as a snapshot, benefit delays could be connected to around 70 per cent of referrals to their food banks.

This situation has shown little sign of abating, with campaigners warning of forthcoming evictions across Scotland. Indeed, on his recent visit to Edinburgh, Jeremy Corbyn and I were proud to back the Living Rent Tenants’ Union’s campaign to oppose eviction arising from the deliberately delayed payment of Universal Credit, a pledge which no other major Scottish politician has yet supported.

Universal Credit’s “digital only” requirement, which forces the elderly and disabled to trek miles to public libraries with severely reduced hours or to rely on the goodwill of family and friends in order to complete forms for benefits they are entitled to by law and by right, will be brought to an end, whilst, more proactively, our new plans for universal free super-fast broadband will ameliorate so-called ‘digital deprivation’.

The recruitment of an extra 5,000 welfare advisors will ease pressure on over-worked and over-stressed DWP staff, many of whom themselves are on the edge of poverty.

Indeed, by the estimates of the Public and Commercial Services Trade Union (PCS), around 40 per cent of the staff working on Universal Credit are entitled themselves to claim it.

Of course, it is right that such plans are scrutinised and found to be deliverable. In 2017, we produced the most detailed costings for a manifesto in British political history, and we will do so again when we launch our manifesto later this week.

A mid-winter General Election, fought under the cloud of the interminable imbroglio of Brexit and at a time when opinion polls suggest many don’t trust politicians, might produce a low turn-out.

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But not to vote and, I would argue, not to vote Labour would be a historic mistake. Politics can and does make a difference, especially to the poor, the disabled, the elderly, the sick and the simply unlucky.

The SNP in Holyrood has tried to ‘mitigate’ some benefit cuts but they have shown nowhere near the imagination or commitment that is needed in trying to tackle poverty and the inequality that underlies it.

A Labour Government, on the other hand, would begin to get to work on 13 December to take the action needed. Socialism is, after all, the language of priorities.

It would be a sweet irony then if Scotland, where Iain Duncan Smith on his visits to the East End of Glasgow, dreamt up a welfare system that has caused so many of our fellow citizens to be thrown into penury and humiliation, was able to end it by electing Scottish Labour MPs on 12 December.

Now, as further bureaucratic chaos beckons with changes in payment dates over the Christmas season, that would make for an ‘Easterhouse epiphany’.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour Party