How can we talk about fairer futures for businesses and workforces without also considering what happens when you have no work or exist on a low income? These were themes at our Newcastle launch. The north-east of England has a history of monolithic workplaces which then closed down as industries left the area, leaving an absence in their wake. Jobs are not as varied as in some parts of the UK; unemployment is higher and more entrenched. The area has had rough experience with both post-industrial life in Britain and the mechanisms brought in to manage those needing a safety net.
Indeed, eloquent presentations from the north-east at our second launch event painted a stark picture of life with Universal Credit (UC), the new online system that unifies all social security benefit payments (see more here: https://www.gov.uk/universal-credit ).
There are some key changes from the social security payment system that the United Kingdom is leaving:
- Instead of six payments that address different aspects of life (such as housing, unemployment and child benefits), there is one electronic monthly amount into your account.
If you live in England or Wales and get help with your rent, this is now included in your monthly payment, so you pay the landlord directly.
- If you live with someone as a couple and you are both entitled to claim UC, you get a joint payment paid into a single bank account.
- UC is paid in arrears so it can take up to five weeks after a claim to get your first payment.
- You make your claim online.
Any sharp-eyed person will now be asking such questions as:
- What if you don’t have a bank account?
- What if your partner withholds or squanders the payments?
- What if you have never budgeted monthly in your life?
- What are you supposed to do for the five weeks while you wait for the transition to kick in?
- And what if you can’t go online?
There are also less visible aspects to the system. There is a ‘claimant commitment’, offering stricter conditions for receipt of support (in some cases, much stricter, since the 6 payments had different rules attached in the past). Out-of-work claimants will be expected to look for or prepare for work for 35 hours a week. The penalties for failing to comply with the ‘claimant commitment’ will be more severe than under the old system. As part, Job Centre advisers can refer claimants to a work experience placement. Failure to comply for any number of reasons leads to a benefit sanction.
It is notable that Citizens Advice, which exists to help people deal with bureaucracy and crisis, offers advice such as: “If you think your rent or mortgage payment will be late because you’re waiting for your Universal Credit payment, you should talk to your landlord or mortgage lender. They might agree to wait for payment if you explain the situation to them.”. It has a section in its UC advice on finding and using food banks. In other words, Citizens Advice is dealing with the fallout from moving people at their most vulnerable into a new system.
At our event, we discussed stories of hardship that emerge from the way this digital system has been implemented and its impact in the area. There are plenty of stories of disaster in the mainstream press. For instance, in at least one case, a suicide has been directly linked (https://www.grimsbytelegraph.co.uk/news/universal-credit-killed-dad-grieving-1850447) and other people have been thrown into sudden desperate poverty (caught in the national newspaper story here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/17/we-went-days-without-eating-properly-universal-credit-misery-inverness).
There are also many stories of people who have escalated from just making-do into a chaotic full-blown poverty, with eviction and starvation, as a result of seemingly arbitrary system choices and a lack of flexibility. This lack of discretion is aggravated by understaffing, but, even for compassionate humans in the system, there is nothing to be done about the mechanistic judgments. ‘The speed with which problems spiral into household catastrophes is one of the most striking features of the new benefit system’ says Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian, looking at the results of the pilot in Scotland.
At our event, we heard about the case of a man newly given a single monthly payment, which included his rent, unemployment benefit and other benefits (over £1000). This had never happened to him before he moved to UC. All those around him warned against it, because he had a well-known history of alcohol abuse. But the system does not consider histories or allow for discretion. He drew out all the money in one go and went on a drinking ‘bender’. Within weeks he was homeless, then destitute and eventually died. His downward spiral can be linked to insensitive system design.
Karen Woods of the Parker Trust shares stories of considerate Job Centre workers ringing her to say that they had just failed to make the system work for someone and would the Trust help whoever was about to fall through the net. In many cases, the claimant being sanctioned is referred straight to the local food bank. Take up of food banks has risen by 30% since UC, says the Trussell Trust (https://www.trusselltrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/04/Early-Warnings-Universal-Credit-and-Foodbanks.pdf).
Karen is angry, in her role as a councillor she berates a recent council meeting: “We are seeing an increase in working poor, period poverty, holiday hunger…. It is apparent now that being online is a necessity and not a luxury – why is that not reflected in the payments? What century are we living in? This is 2019. This is an absolute disgrace and people responsible need to hang their heads in shame.
“People are being told: Go to foodbanks! Yes, go to the oversubscribed foodbanks, which are mostly ran by volunteers because someone sitting in a lovely comfy office, who has never been skint in their life, has decided that everyone can wait up to 5 weeks to be paid. Universal credit was built on assumptions! Assumption that one size fits all!
“We are told people need to learn to budget – once again fantastic advice – so why does universal credit then give payments putting the claimant immediately in debt? And what about those most vulnerable, those with addictions or learning disabilities who seriously cannot manage their own money? There are not enough resources in place to help these people.
“We are told people need to get online – how? Government cuts have seen libraries close and electronic villages lose the funding to keep them open. Youth and community organisations are running at full pelt, trying to mop up the mess that has been created trying to deliver additional services – relying on volunteers and staff.”
Meanwhile, politicians have had to refute other criticisms in much this vein. Sky News ran a story about the scripts given to Job Centre helplines (https://news.sky.com/story/deflection-script-used-to-get-universal-credit-claimants-off-the-phone-emerges-11624331). Though staff are supposedly there to help applicants cope with problems, those staffing the phones were deflecting claimants back to the online service about which they were calling to complain. Understaffing makes workers complicit in these ploys because it is hard for them to manage their workload.
Related to these concerns are other failures of the system. Doctors have been told not to write sick notes for claimants, once the DWP has decided (on its own terms) that someone is fit for work (http://data.parliament.uk/DepositedPapers/Files/DEP2018-0290/ESA65B_Letter.pdf). There have been numerous people judged fit for work who died shortly after.
Are there signs of deliberate built-in injustice? George Morris, writing in 2016 when roll-out was very limited, points to many cases of misery brought on by indiscriminate sanctions: ‘Examples of despicable applications of the sanctions system are easy to find. A man who had been offered a job starting in two weeks was sanctioned for not looking for work in the meantime. A man who missed an appointment at the Job Centre after informing them that he would do so to attend his father’s funeral was sanctioned. Ceri Padley missed an appointment at her Job Centre and was sanctioned, despite the fact that she had missed the appointment because she was at a job interview. A man with heart problems had a heart attack during a work capability assessment, and was sanctioned for failing to complete the assessment. Stricter terms, overworked Job Centre workers, and an obsession with conditionality and the ‘claimant commitment’ have created gross injustices within a system supposedly designed to support the most vulnerable people in society.’.
Other commentators have been less measured. Noting chronic understaffing, delays and broken computer systems, Tom Walker says that ‘Even if everything had gone according to plan, claimants would still be facing misery, hunger and eviction. Because this is, quite simply, what the scheme is designed to do: to re-draw the entire welfare benefits system in order to change unemployed people’s behaviour […and] using the need to ‘simplify’ the system as a smokescreen for attempts to discipline claimants.’.
The launch gave us an opportunity to reflect on the way the design of the socio-technical system worked for social justice. There are clearly challenges, since it cannot be trusted for even basic support. People were asking each other whether, by making it difficult to access, use and comply with, politicians might be seeking to reduce the amount paid out and the number of recorded claimants. It is a mark of a successful Government to have few people out of work. While there was no direct answer to that, there was scepticism about the motives behind the design at the meeting.
We heard how the use of a ‘points’ scorecard to feed eligibility data into the system also poses problems. Instead of assessing claimants on their merits, the scorecard is designed to judge dispassionately on specified criteria. Whereas some will arrive at their interview ready to stress how ‘down on their luck’ they are, proud applicants dress up respectfully for their interview, minimizing their troubles and speaking politely, even deferentially, to the people who have formerly sat in judgment of their eligibility. The need to paint reality at its worst fits badly with the stigma of needing state care. Now that all benefits are rolled in together, including those for working people with the unemployed, there is potential for additional shame. These emotions are not part of machine relations. The dignity of claimants, such as it was, is further removed by the design of the scorecard system.
There are other traps. You cannot do voluntary work because you have to evidence the time spent job-seeking. You cannot take opportunities to improve skills to find something new or better. There is a form about job-search that asks how many days you are available to look for work. To evidence job-seeking, you need access to the internet. Many people are dependent on the local library for access. You may be ready to work 7 days, but the library is shut at the weekend, so you have to state fewer. Jobsearch has become an (inflexible) job, albeit quite different from the job you would get if you were working. This, in itself, is confusing. It is arguably a return to workhouse conditions.
Karen Wood explains to us how job-seekers’ questions have included how to insert a paper CV into the computer (you are required to enter your CV into it). A new (unpaid) industry has started up managing problems created by the inadequacies of a digital-by-default design for some of the people with least access to the skills needed to participate digitally.
In sum, a system that requires claimants to evidence working 35 hours a week instead of taking on voluntary roles is detrimental to both the individual and society. As a one-size-fits-all system, it handles aspects poorly, from supporting long-term disabilities to motivating people to find gainful employment. There is no backstop. When the computer says No, it is also expressing a design choice.
Where did these values come from? They are, in part, embedded in a culture that believes computer systems bring fairness through impartiality. This is, of course, refuted by evidence that a system is only as good as its data, processes and implementation. But there is also a hint of a hostile environment about some of the choices that have been made. In a compassionate society, care manifests as attention to the individual. With Universal Credit, the United Kingdom has taken yet another step away from looking after people when they are vulnerable.
 In 2012, Caitlin Reilly and Jamieson Wilson (unemployed at the time) sought to challenge the ‘workfare’ policy connected to welfare reforms. Under the policy, claimants have been mandated to work in return for their benefits and would be sanctioned for refusing to do so. The High Court ruled in August 2012 that the policy was not a form of slavery and did not breach the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court of Appeal ruled the following year that the scheme was unlawful, because of lack of clear information and because Parliament had not authorised implemention of such programmes. In March 2013, the government updated the law to authorise the scheme. Reilly and Wilson’s lawyers challenged the retrospective change in the law and were successful in July 2014 when the Supreme Court ruled that it contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. (http://www.renewal.org.uk/blog/universal-credit-ideology-and-the-politics-of-poverty)
 George Morris (2016) Universal Credit, Ideology and the Politics of Poverty
Renewal. A journal of social democracy