It is right to ask whether the Welfare Secretary should resign. But we shouldn't allow parliamentary drama to distract us from the real problem with the schemeby Maya Goodfellow / July 5, 2018 / Leave a comment
Esther McVey as Whitehall’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, has written to the Work and Pensions Secretary to complain of inaccuracies in her statement to Parliament on Universal Credit. Photo: PA An apology and, sometimes, a resignation: these are the two things we’ve come to expect when a minister’s mistake is publicly exposed. That was what former Home Secretary Amber Rudd did in April when she admitted she had “inadvertently misled” MPs over targets for undocumented migrants. Yesterday Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Esther McVey had to issue this same apology over a statement she had made on universal credit. But in both cases there’s a much bigger problem behind the specific blunder. In Rudd’s, it was the Windrush affair and the appalling way migrants are treated in Britain. In McVey’s, it is universal credit itself. McVey had to apologise after she claimed the National Audit Office (NAO)—the independent body that scrutinises public spending for Parliament—said in a report Universal Credit was working and that they were concerned it was being implemented too slowly. In reality, the NAO report was anything but positive. It found Universal Credit is “not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven”; that the government’s own claim that it will boost employment is unlikely to be provable any time soon; and said that, contrary to McVey’s claims, there should be a pause in reforms. Issuing a surprising letter, auditor general Sir Amyas Morse pointed out that parts of McVey’s statement were incorrect and unproven. It’s difficult to understand how such a blatant misrepresentation of the report could have been “inadvertent,” but if it were, it still leaves a big question mark hanging over McVey’s head. If Rudd had to go for a similar “mistake,” should Rudd really still be Welfare Secretary? While this is a valid question, we shouldn’t individualise this saga, or only see it as part the drama of parliamentary politics. The government’s problems go beyond McVey’s statement or the NAO—in fact, to the heart of the universal credit system itself. Universal credit doesn’t sound like such a bad idea in practice. Instead of six different forms of state support being given separately—from tax credits to housing benefit—what you do need is supposed to be rolled into one monthly payment. But the Tory flagship welfare policy has been an utter catastrophe. Because of huge cuts it could be roughly £3 billion a year less generous than the old system. According to the Resolution Foundation, it could leave working single parents with £1,350 less a year. Legislated for in 2011 with the planned rollout scheduled for 2017, it has been marred by huge management problems and ongoing IT errors. Despite more than £1bn of investment and eight years of development, for the claimants it has been rolled out to many are still experiencing delays in their payments. That can have dire consequences; people can be left without money they need, unable to pay food or rent, and with the real potential of eviction and destitution looming over them. Some are forced to borrow from legal loan sharks, plunging themselves into debt because the state isn’t providing them with the most basic of safety nets. Others have to join the queues at food banks, which are getting longer and longer. Universal credit as it is simply isn’t sustainable: it’s got to be reformed or removed. This, in turn, is one cog in a much bigger Conservative machine that has been steadily striping back social security. The government has been cutting disability support while outsourcing to private companies who assess people for those same benefits, freezing in-work benefits as in-work poverty skyrockets, implementing the bedroom tax and ushering in “sanctions” that mean if you’re late for a jobcentre appointment you could have your state support docked. We already have the overwhelming evidence that government welfare policy is making peoples’ lives miserable—but there’s little sign they will be deterred from their destructive course. For decades people who need state support have been stigmatised as lazy and irresponsible; poverty has been pathologised. Being out of work is reduced to an individual failing and people who can’t work are badgered through fit-to-work tests. Thousands who’ve been found eligible have died within weeks of being assessed. The government’s ideological crusade against social security has caused misery for people up and down the country. It makes sense to argue the fiasco over McVey and the NAO report should signal the end of her time as Welfare Secretary. But that alone won’t solve the unmitigated disaster of universal credit—and the cruelty of our current welfare system.