Though the dust on last week’s budget has not exactly settled, the UK Government seems to think it has put to bed the debate about the need to overhaul Universal Credit for at least another year.
Far less than a fix, Philip Hammond’s £1.7 billion to boost work allowances is very much a fudge that still fails to make work pay and nor do Esther McVey’s reforms tackle Universal Credit’s brutal systemic flaws.
Yes, three-quarters of George Osborne’s work allowance cuts have been reversed. Yes, the £1,000 partial uplift in the work allowance is, on its own, a welcome improvement. But the UK Government hasn’t gone far enough. Coupled with design flaws, Universal Credit remains a lopsided benefit set to help some and slash household incomes of others. The Resolution Foundation points out that two groups, lone parents and those with limited capability for work without housing costs, will still be worse off by £2,000 and £1,200 respectively.
Lifting the benefit freeze, ending the two-child cap, automatically splitting payments and slashing the five-week wait are all still vitally needed to cut through the misery Universal Credit has brought.
The announcement that help for the self-employed, two-week run-on payments (but not those on child tax credit, again lone parents), and the maximum 30 per cent debt collection rate will be implemented is also an improvement. However, it comes only after thousands have already had to suffer the misery of the current system.
In my Central Scotland region alone, 21,000 people have moved on to Universal Credit over the past year. They are suffering the payment delays that have led to rent arrears quadrupling, 40 per cent deductions from their benefit to pay back almost £8m in advances, and a brutal conditionality system. They do not need to give the Department of Work and Pensions more time; they need the system fixed now.
For the 100,000 Scots already suffering the misery of Universal Credit, the delay to the managed migration will not help them either, nor will waiting six months for the work-allowance boost. In addition to the miserable experience of being put through the mill with minimal help, this is a benefit that has not made work pay and it is having lasting effects on people, sending them to foodbanks and payday lenders.
So what do we do? Return to our call to halt or scrap it? Wait another 11 months for the Tories to suddenly realise it isn’t working? Surely, the answer is to find ways to fix it and act.
First, MPs must work across party lines to overhaul the “managed migration” rules. Designed to catch people out, some will still lose out. Families on tax credits will get a time-limited “invitation” to apply; if they do not, they lose their “transitional protection”. Bluntly, there is nothing managed about this process, even after Esther McVey’s statement. It is now up to Labour and SNP MPs to do everything they can to truly put a halt to the next phase of rollout and vote it down.
Second, the Scottish Parliament must show its might. MSPs should agree to thrash out what can be done now, rather than what cannot be done to help people. The disastrous effect that Universal Credit is having on our communities is of the Tories’ making, but that should not be a block on how we help people suffering now.
Ramping up the Scottish Welfare Fund, fast-tracking the income supplement for lone parents and the disabled, and introducing automatic landlord payments are just a few ways Holyrood can make people’s lives easier.
I desperately want a UK Labour Government to fix Universal Credit. The SNP are clear they want all welfare devolved. And though we should treat with suspicion Theresa May’s dismissal of another General Election, people suffering don’t deserve more waiting when we can make fixes now.
Call it mitigation if you will, but people have to be reassured Holyrood does act and is better than this callous Tory Government.
Mark Griffin MSP is Scottish Labour’s spokesman on social security