Darren McGarvey: The ‘benefits’ of Universal Credit should give Tories food for thought

I recently attended an AGM at Kirkcaldy Foodbank (KFB) in Fife. The small church hall was packed to capacity, with ­additional seating being brought in to meet the demand.

That the event was so well attended took me by surprise, but that wasn’t nearly as surprising as the main item on the evening’s ­agenda. Aside from the usual ­business, of accounting for income and expenditure and presenting members with an annual report, detailing the sharp rise in foodbank use as well as data showing ­specific reasons people were accessing the service, the committee also had to hold a vote to rewrite a tenet of their constitution – when it was written, they did not foresee the foodbank being needed for any more than two years.

Foodbank use soars by more than half in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out, says Darren McGarvey. Picture: Neil Hanna.

Foodbank use soars by more than half in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out, says Darren McGarvey. Picture: Neil Hanna.

Between January and December 2017, KFB distributed 121,311 meals to the local community through its network of five distribution centres. A total of 4046 children received assistance in the same year. Most individuals and families ­accessing the foodbank are self-referred.

When they present at the foodbank, they are asked to detail the nature of the ‘crisis’ they are ­experiencing. Benefit sanctions, benefit changes and benefit delays account for 41 per cent of food bank referrals in Kirkcaldy. This situation is representative of the wider food poverty crisis across the UK.

Foodbank use has soared recently, and by some strange coincidence, so has the roll out of Universal Credit – the UK government’s attempt to harmonise the welfare system, which Labour MP Frank Field, described last year as “an obstacle course of unreliable ­computer ­systems, arcane rules, massive delays and maladministration”.

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that between March 2017 and March 2018, 1,332,952 emergency food supplies were distributed to people across the UK. Low income is the main reason for referral and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of foodbank use.

But perhaps the most significant factor, as reflected in Kirkcaldy, is the role welfare reform plays. ­Benefit delays accounted for 24 per cent of referrals while benefit changes were cited by 18 per cent – 42 per cent in total, similar to Kirkcaldy. The ­correlation between Universal Credit and foodbank use becomes more linear when you map the ­roll-out directly onto areas experiencing the sharpest rises in food poverty.

The research, which analysed foodbank use in areas where ­Universal Credit had recently been rolled out, revealed an average increase of 52 per cent in the 12 months following the rollout dates.

Notably, foodbanks outside the Universal Credit rollout zones ­experienced an average increase of just 13 per cent. Now I think I already know what some of you objective and analytical tough-love Tories are thinking. You’re thinking ­Universal Credit is a necessary evil that ­simplifies a complex and ­outdated benefit system. You’re thinking foodbank use is very complicated and that it’s illogical to attribute a sharp rise to one specific ­causal factor. You’re thinking that this research is based on wibbly-wobbly anecdotal ­evidence, from a small, self-selecting sample of claimants and that the reform – painful as it is – tends to work for most of the ­people claiming it. ­Coincidentally, that’s also what the Department of Work and Pensions thinks. I don’t dispute that Universal Credit works for a lot of people, but I think that the damage it’s doing to those it doesn’t work for is unjustified, socially toxic and needs to be re-examined urgently.

Since we’re on the topic of ­evidence, does anyone know what evidence underpinned the UK government’s decision to intensify welfare conditionality in 2012? What evidence there is to support the hypothesis, that by making the process of applying for and being on benefits so unpleasant that people find it confusing, humiliating and frightening, that they will miraculously transcend their multiple ­disadvantages? There is none. Most of the evidence is that the current approach is counterproductive and unethical.

The Welfare Conditionality project, running from 2013-2018, recently presented an analysis on the impact of the new ­welfare regime as well as the practices that underpin it. Findings drew on ­qualitative data ­generated from a range of sources, including policy stakeholders, focus groups and ­welfare service users in England and Scotland.

Concerning homeless people, the report found that benefit ­sanctions caused “considerable distress and push some extremely vulnerable people out of the social security safety net altogether” and that “dealing with the ‘fallout’ from sanctions diverts support workers away from assisting with accommodation and other support needs”.

For disabled people, the report found that the Work Capability Assessment – in which people with disabilities must prove they are unfit for certain types of employment – is “intrusive, insensitively administered and regularly leads to inappropriate outcomes in respect of disabled people’s capabilities to undertake, or prepare for, paid employment”. Where job ­seekers are concerned, welfare conditionality “did not prompt behaviour change” and claimants felt there was “a lack of clarity or warning that their behaviour was sanctionable, that work coaches were too quick to resort to the use of a sanction, and that sanctions were disproportionate to the alleged transgression”. ­

For many lone parents, it found that “insufficient account is taken of caring responsibilities when claimant commitments are devised”, that many lone parents were sanctioned as a result of “unreasonable expectations, DWP administrative errors, or failures of comprehension rather than deliberate non-compliance”.

Across the board, from migrants to offenders, the persistent threat of sanctions caused “extreme anxiety, even when not enacted” and had a multiplicative effect on the adversity many people were accessing ­benefits to manage. Even Conservative MPs have spoken out against the harshness of this regime, ­forcing moderate concessions from the government, such as a reduction in the time ­claimants must wait to receive their first payment. But these will do little in the grand scheme of things, because the orthodoxy informing the ­culture at the DWP remains the same: an assumption that tough social cues and incentives, designed to deter people from benefits by inconveniencing, humiliating or frightening them, will achieve something other than increased adversity.

I don’t believe Conservatives who support these measures are doing it out of hatred for the poor. I think they genuinely believe work is the best route out of poverty and that tough love is the best medicine.

In principle, that’s not such a bad thing. But what we now know about the current culture of welfare conditionality, is that rather than getting the poor and vulnerable into work, it’s pushing them into further adversity. It may be time to think again – for everyone’s benefit.