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Social Justice

Benefit claimants have designed a system to replace the ‘monstrous’ universal credit

Complete reforms to universal credit and other payments are needed to ensure benefits helps people out of poverty, a commission has said.

A group of carers, jobseekers and disabled people have outlined their vision for a system to replace the “monstrous” universal credit model.

After hearing evidence from more than 1,000 people, the Commission on Social Security called for a guaranteed decent income (GDI) of £163.50 per week. This is half of what people working full time on a minimum wage earn – but well over double the rough £75 per week universal credit claimants will receive after an April increase.

“The public are unaware of the truth about how the benefit system works,” said commissioner Mike Tighe, one of the people with experience of the benefits system who led the report. “People are treated with suspicion and distrust. It leads to frustration, anxiety and hurt for ordinary people. 

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“It’s not that the people working for the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] are monsters, but the system they are being asked to enforce is definitely monstrous.

“Everyone is entitled to dignity, including with social security.”

The proposed GDI would replace employment and support allowance, income support, jobseeker’s allowance and working tax credits as well as universal credit, according to the report. Unlike the blanket terms of universal credit, it would also be open to people aged 16 and 17 as well as pensioners – meaning millions currently excluded from poverty figures would benefit. Child benefit and disability payments would not be taken into account when assessing a person’s income.

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In a series of proposals to transform the welfare system, the commissioners considered existing data on living costs and agreed on increasing child benefit to £50 per week for every child, noting that there is no established formula for determining how much child benefit should be.

Combined with the GDI, this would increase the income of around 30 million people in the UK, according to modelling by the Fraser of Allander Institute at the University of Strathclyde.

Benefit sanctions and the cap would be scrapped, as well as the five-week wait for a first payment and the two-child limit on benefits. There should be no job-search or work-related conditions placed on people’s claims, the experts recommended.

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Housing costs should be treated separately, the commissioners said, highlighting the “completely broken” rental system. Housing benefit is now folded into universal credit payments for most people across the country, which should be reversed and redesigned to provide short-term reprieve for households struggling to afford their rent.

But “the only real solution is a large-scale programme of building social housing”, according to the study, encouraging the government to approach support with housing costs as a housing issue, not a benefits one.

“This is not a system fit for purpose,” said Ellen Morrison, 29, co-chair of the commission. “How can I be assessed as eligible for a higher rate of employment support allowance but now I’m in a relationship, the government expects me to rely on my partner’s income.

“It’s incredibly regressive to take away disabled people’s independence and autonomy in this way”. 

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The robust social security system set out by the commission would help thousands of people withstand future economic shocks such as pandemics, as well as easing the pressure of the cost of living crisis by helping people afford both food and heating and reduce government spending in the long-term, they said.

The group also called for cultural reforms within the DWP, urging “an end to the hostile environment people are faced with” when navigating the benefits system.

The personal independence payment should be scrapped too, the commissioners said, to be replaced by non means-tested support to help disabled people cover the higher living costs they face.

But the commission, funded by Trust for London, said such benefits reforms must be combined with other action to improve quality of life in the UK.

Welfare payments “are being used to solve problems that could be prevented by improvements to other areas”, they said, including better wages and working conditions, an end to the no recourse to public funds policy for asylum seekers, free prescriptions and dental care and universal free school meals.

“The pandemic showed that when times were tough it was unpaid carers, supermarket workers and others on low incomes who kept our society going,” said commission secretary Michael Orton, senior research fellow at Warwick University’s Institute for Employment Research.

“It also showed that if we choose to, we can provide social security for everyone. However, the recent cut to universal credit means the government is headed in the wrong direction. With a cost of living crisis looming in 2022, it doesn’t have to be like this.”

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