The content of the aforementioned email was a request for my thoughts from the frontline of social welfare on the controversial new benefit to end all benefits, Universal Credit, a veritable M25 with five lanes and a delay in arrival of six weeks! Perhaps you haven't been on the M25 for six weeks, maybe only six hours, but let me assure you, Universal Credit does bear some resemblance to that broad superhighway with its accommodating lanes and attendant hazards.
As I explained to our well informed but welfare mystified writer, Universal Credit is without doubt a brilliant idea which hosts within itself the kernel of greatness, even genius. For a start, it takes low paid and unemployed people off the meandering B roads ( that's B for bureaucracy) of JSA and ESA and Incapacity Benefit and Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit and Income Support, into one converging route for all, in the form of a monthly payment which allows the smooth lane changes from and to casual, part time and low paid work. Thus a person can start work while on Universal Credit and will not need to leave at the next junction (to follow the metaphor) but keep the pedal down until they reach their destination of fulltime work at a survivable income. So far, so good, even very, very good.
But we must return the matter of queues and waiting times and pedals because Universal Credit, the M25 of benefits has already turned out to be a dangerous trip for many, and impending tragedy for some, specifically for those of us who have no backup of savings or generous well heeled relatives, to rescue from the hard shoulder with an empty tank and breakdown. In fact, these hazards are inherent in its first miles, or should I say six weeks, and the risk is - yes you've got there already - running out of cash for fuel. As all sane drivers know, you don't join the M25 with your needle on the line and nothing in your pocket, because you are placing yourself in the path of a juggernaut.
Universal credit is rather like that if you are without savings; you'll join the main drag and have to drive on empty for six weeks. How unwise a route for the many and how utterly dangerous for a significant demographic of people, anxiety ridden, mentally unwell, debt loaded, fuel impoverished, socially excluded, and lets not forget the children whose parents can't feed them adequately on fresh air. The pilot rollouts of the new benefit have already demonstrated the severe hardship and eviction risks in other parts of the country.
Well we talked and jousted, myself and our erudite volunteer, as she wrestled with my views and other far more highly positioned perspectives. It made me take a fresh look at the shape of people's lives on Universal Credit, and to spell it out here; for many it will be rent arrears leading to the terror of possession orders and worse, actual eviction, and street homelessness. For others it will amount to the hunger, but most unbearable, the hunger of children, and the mental deterioration of the most fragile people, all because the system is designed to mimic the rhythm of work where salaries are paid at the end of the month. So much for safeguarding vulnerable adults! But what a great opportunity by the comfortable, cushioned, upper echelons of Society to benevolently train the struggling dysfunctional masses to manage their money and lives.
Thanks be, last night, there were some flickers of sanity in our ancient democracy as a motion to delay the national rollout of Universal Credit was carried. Earnest voices from all parties questioned the wisdom and justice of the six week gap in payments. But the rigidity of government in refusing to make a simple compassionate change and bridge the gap in payments for the many going onto the benefit from another benefit, is deeply troubling. Is this six week gap really intrinsic in the design of the benefit, or the ideology behind it? Again, there is more than a hint of Social Darwinism, if not in the intent, then in the attitude to the effects on people. Only those joining this road with full fuel tanks will survive a six week journey. At least, Parliament gave the government a reality check last night and as my journalist volunteer insisted; there are people with good intentions in all the parties.
Nothing is as yet resolved or won for sure in this particular battle and I agree that listening to all the perspectives and looking at the aerial (theoretical and statistical) views is important but surely, whatever the best of intentions by those removed from its reality, the most crucial view is on the ground, eyeball to eyeball, where the rubber literally hits the road? As one theologian has articulated it ' the order of things (systems) must be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way around'. Don't the architects of this potentially very effective innovation realise that people all over our cities and towns and villages don't have savings tucked away for a rainy day? Has Universal Credit been designed to serve the people's needs or are the people to serve the great ideology behind Universal Credit?
We're in a global financial warming too where inflation and austerity have already emptied our hope chests. Our government should know how their citizens live, not just the people they relate directly to. But lets return to my preferred metaphor: why, oh why, would you build the M25 of benefit systems, brilliant in essence, beautiful in design, direct in route and then expect people to drive on empty for the first hundred miles?
Answers on a postcard..