I know that Universal Credit has become a political hot potato and I don’t want my comments to be regarded as a criticism of this party or that. The concept of a single source for welfare (social contract) payments actually sounds neat and attractive. Also, people who are able to work should be encouraged to do so. This is not a new concept. Even St Paul, writing to the Thessalonians in the first century said, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3.10). What we now need is an honest and courageous evaluation of the way the principle of Universal Credit is working in practice.
As a Christian, I must begin by looking at the way the poorest, most downtrodden people are affected by the way the current system of Universal Credit is working. In the Bible, the hardest-pressed of all poor people were summarised as ‘widows and orphans’ for they were the group most at risk and with least support. Our concern should be for their present-day successors whose essential outgoings are costing more and more and their incomes standing still or going down. They fear Universal Credit, particularly because it seems to assume that everyone has a nest egg which will tide them over as they wait a minimum of 42 days for payouts. That is grotesquely ignorant, for millions of people, especially those in need of support, are already in debt and have nothing to fall back on. If their rental payments lapse, they are at risk of eviction. That means, in the case of families with young children, an additional burden for their local Council, who are obliged to house them, and whose resources are already stretched to breaking point. Some tenants have taken out short-term loans at excessive interest rates, because that seemed the only way out of their ’42 day' dilemma. So the repayment of capital and interest on those loans becomes the first call on any payment they receive. It’s a downward spiral. Housing Associations will testify that tenants on Universal Credit can be long overdue with their rent, solely because the ’42 days’ has become four months or more. Cutting waiting times until first payments are received must be a priority for the Government: cut the weeks from six, to four, to three?
The charity, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) estimates that official poverty figures will increase by almost 500,000 people because of the four-year freeze on benefits that began last year. As this was founded on a forecast of inflation which has already been overtaken, it simply is no longer justified. JRF has also calculated that one-fifth of expenditure on public services is “linked to dealing with the impacts of poverty”.
Selby, Scarborough, Middlesbrough to name just a few, have foodbanks which are experiencing an ever increasing demand, with the summer holiday period reaching record levels of people seeking support. During this harvest season we are in, it is time to be thankful for what we have and give what we can to others. Foodbanks are already planning for increased demands in the period leading up to Christmas and are requesting that donations are made early in order to sort them and send out. They are a 21st Century phenomenon of which I’m both proud and embarrassed. Embarrassed, because this shouldn’t be necessary in a caring prosperous Britain; proud because thousands of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of donors have risen to meet a human need. God bless them!
Congratulations to the Prime Minister for scrapping charges for Universal Credit claimants’ phone helpline. That was a humane response to a flaw in the system which was revealed in practice. The underlying principle was not endangered by a sensible adjustment.
I want to be proud of our national care for today’s “widows and orphans”, too. Adjustments to the system of Universal Credit would go a long way in that direction.