Everyone will have heard about Universal Credit because of the massive rollout by government and the debate it has stirred in the Commons and the media.
For those who don’t know, Universal Credit is a reform to our benefits system that wraps six housing and employment benefits up into one which is paid in one go directly into people’s bank accounts.
Its important to say that at it’s inception, Labour supported Universal Credit. Having to apply and maintain several different benefits, managed through different offices and with different caseworkers, was a nightmare. It was also a nightmare for staff.
I was also involved at the very beginning, because I was asked due to a previous job to represent the voice of the voluntary sector as the system was at its very early design stage.
Right back at the beginning, I voiced very strong concerns about the rushed nature of the design and roll-out. George Osbourne and Iain Duncan-Smith thought it could all be done in one parliamentary term which was ludicrous. I also expressed concerns about the level of computer literacy that was needed by claimants, the fact that payment was made to one member of a family (if several were claiming, which could have power issues in abusive or semi-abusive relationships), and the high levels of financial planning required due to the fact that rent payments were to be made directly to the claimant and not the landlord in housing cases.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see how few of these concerns were addressed at the very beginning because there were very many of us making them. Many of the pilots, particularly in newcastle, plunged many people into misery. Looking back, it’s suc a shame that the cross-party consensus on this was broken by the Cameron government. We had hoped they would take three parliaments to get it right before rollout. Instead, they rushed it, broke trust with many, and the delays and overspend has led it to take that period of time anyway but without benefitting from the wisdom and cooperation that should have been the case.
This month Universal Credit began it’s rollout to Brighton and Hove, starting with the BN3 postal area. My whole team braced itself for a deluge of casework, but that hasn’t been the case. We’ve had some people in need of support, but not as many as we expected. There’s two reasons for that. The first is the council, and the second is our local Job Centre Plus in Hove. The staff and managers at both have been truly brilliant, making sure that preparations and made, staff are fully trained, and that claimants are fully informed and supported.
On Friday I went along to the JCP with Stella who runs the casework support operation from my office in Hove. We met the regional and local directors, staff, and also spoke to people who were coming into the centre off the street to listen to their experiences first hand.
The most alarming aspect of Universal Credit is that it’s paid into people’s accounts six weeks in arrears. This is an outright assault on people who are in low-paid work already but struggling with housing and food. Labour have called two debates on this in the past fortnight and on both occasions the Tories refused to participate in the voting so were defeated, but as it was an Opposition Day Debate it was non-binding. Tempters were running very high on both occasions – including from me – as the Tories were disrespecting the spirit of our parliamentary democracy, which was pointed out by no other than the Speaker himself.
Right now there are about 300 families locally on Universal Credit. Some have been given an advance on their payment to get them by. I spoke to frontline staff to ensure that this is done fairly and swiftly, and was shown the system being used and assured that payments are made instantly and that staff have the discretion to make decisions without getting embroiled in bureaucracy.
I have to say that the atmosphere in the JCP was really brilliant. Staff were so friendly and really professional. They are in the frontline of the battle our communities have waged with the ravages of austerity. They are supporting people who were poor but have been made vulnerable by decisions on where and hot cuts have been made. At times I am sure there work is distressing and heartbreaking, but each of the staff I met seemed incredibly caring.
If you are in need of IT training, support, skills development, or a nice clean space to use wifi or computers to help you find work I really suggest you head there (it’s right by Portslade Station).
Government have ignored our call to pause the rollout until some of the difficulties experienced elsewhere are ironed out. So next month people in the BN4 postcode will be affected as well as other parts of Brighton.
I will be monitoring this very, very closely, and continue to give voice to it in parliament alongside my fellow Labour MP’s as we’ve all spent a great deal of time working together to give voice to those who need it most when big challenging changes like this happen. All the best, Peter