For those who have been affected by the roll-out of Universal Credit, January brought some welcome news. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, announced that the roll-out of Universal Credit will be paused and some of its worst elements reviewed. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it comes too late for areas like Barnsley where the roll-out is almost complete.
The botched introduction of Universal Credit has undoubtedly caused real hardship in Barnsley. It has pushed working families into poverty and put many at risk of poverty and facing the threat of losing their home. By far the biggest casework issue that I have been contacted about in the last 18 months has been Universal Credit – and I have seen first-hand the devastating on people’s lives.
I have been particularly appalled by the treatment that many disabled constituents have experienced while being transferred onto Universal Credit from other benefits. In theory, this should have been fairly straightforward. However in reality, many people have been placed under considerable stress due to the poor management of this process.
Many disabled people report being refused home visits for the compulsory Work Capability Assessments (WCAs) despite having significant mobility issues. Several have described being asked to complete demeaning and humiliating tasks during their assessments, such as sitting on the floor unaided, and a worrying number have questioned why their assessor did not have the appropriate medical training or expertise to assess their disability. This has particularly been the case for those with mental health disabilities.
Another common complaint has been about the unfair rules governing late wage reporting. Currently, people who are working on a low income and therefore also claiming Universal Credit can face penalties if their employers report their earnings too late. It is disgraceful that people who are working hard are penalised through no fault of their own, often being left without enough money to live on for the month.
The Welfare State was one of the proudest achievements of the transformative post-war Labour Government. It was built on the guiding principle of providing a safety net that will help people get back on their feet when times are hard and support the most vulnerable people in our communities. But currently we are seeing working families being hit hard by punitive changes to the welfare system and the failure of Universal Credit in practice. But that does not mean that Universal Credit cannot be made to work. The principle behind it – of making work pay, encouraging people into work and enabling people to better manage their finances – is positive.
That is why I believe that the underlying problems with Universal Credit need to be fixed whilst the roll-out is paused. I have carefully catalogued all of those who have contacted me about this issue; and I have written to two Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions – both of whom have failed to adequately address my concerns.
We can fix Universal Credit by making four common sense reforms. WCAs should be scrapped and replaced with personalised assessments that take into account people’s individual needs and only ever be conducted by medical experts. Pointless reassessments for people with long-term illnesses and lifetime disability awards should be continued after people move onto Universal Credit. No-one should be penalised because of other people’s mistakes.
These changes to Universal Credit can ensure that our welfare system protects the most vulnerable and makes work pay for everyone.
This article was originally published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 22 February 2019.