John Bird: It’s a universal truth – if the plan is rotten we need a new one

Iain Duncan Smith and co must recognise that Universal Credit can't be rolled out until its terrible failings have been corrected

The accumulated pain and suffering of those caught within the benefit system is so constant that you can only conclude that it is failing. That modernisation of the system that brings aid and help to those in need is often baloney.

Manchester, Leicester, Lincoln, Edinburgh, Glasgow, wherever I have travelled since the summer you run into desperate stories. If you read the liberal-inclined papers you’ll get even more. Universal Credit (UC) is the name of the game, yet even outside the zones where UC is being tried out in, there is a malaise over the benefit.

Iain Duncan Smith, often shortened to IDS, the driving force behind UC, should be calling on the abandonment of it. He should be saying that his experiment that was meant to give people needing social security a clearer, supportive system, when applied to the terrain of society itself, is hurting and harming and outraging those who need benefit; and outraging those who cannot stand idly by and watch it tear people to pieces.

The big issue seems to turn on the fact that you can wait six to eight weeks to get on the system. And in four per cent of cases, as long as 10 weeks. That actual ease of working for a short time, then being able to go back on benefit without delay, was its intended saving grace. Or seemed to be when touted about among concerned users and supporters of those in need.

If this system is so foolproof, so big on social opportunity – in fact turning social security into social opportunity itself – then bring us the evidence

The incredible costs of delivering £1 of social support, and the complexity of its delivery, was one of the reasons why many welcomed UC. It seemed that you could work for a while and then go with ease back on to benefit. It seemed that they were going to mentor you out of the depressing social disengagement that often is the backdrop of long-term unemployment. They were going to allow you to take part-time, short-term work and with that grow back into confidence and self-development.

You would have a universal benefit and not the sea of complexity of form-filling and pettifogging over-bureaucracy to wade through. But try getting hold of the Department for Work and Pensions to talk through your case – and until last week, you’d have been paying for the helpline – and you’ll be left hanging.

Some of us have even divined that the whole modernistic plan is to reduce the £114bn social security bill by wearing users down, and hope in desperation they drop off the register altogether.

If this system is so foolproof, so big on social opportunity – in fact turning social security into social opportunity itself – then bring us the evidence. Show us where it works, and to what effect, and tell us that those caught in the eternal wait, which increases mental anxiety, will be rescued from being screwed by the system as it is.

The cynicism around this 10-year development towards UC often shows a healthy disregard for the apparently ill-founded promises. Stop the roll-out! Now! And address the appalling disregard for people who need supporting upward and not downward and into depression.

Implementation is the name of the game. If you come up with the idea then try it out until it works, great; but if you float it ill-formed then you join the hundreds and hundreds of cock-ups, half thought-out pieces of social change, political change and societal change that comes with governments and their decision-making. If you were simply to audit the wasted innovations that end up causing more harm than good, you’d be astonished how many have been made and how many have been summarily killed off as not fit for purpose.

Welfare is kindness to strangers. We must remember how beautiful it is

The worry is that so much reputation is riding on the UC bandwagon, with some seeds of good thinking buried within it, that it will be left in its deformed form intact. And so all innovation is lost. And any social justice opportunities that could grow around social security being used cogently are lost for yet another generation. And we wake up each morning of this supposed new dawn unable to believe the inhumanity of letting people starve and go mad in a no-man’s land of UC’s creation.

I’ve been looking forward so much to getting some building blocks in place to create stepping stones out of poverty. The metaphor might be a wall with a pile of blocks arranged like a stair that all can climb over. The wall is need, is poverty, is privation, is non-education, is ceaseless struggle with little or no result. But to build an escape – an exit strategy – and implement it without harming people’s chances you have to have positives versed around social security. We should be proud of our system, that we will never, ever let one human being down who faces the adversity of poverty! Yet how many of us today can hold their heads up in pride and say, “yes social security works wonders for those who need some wonders in their life”?


There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

Welfare is kindness to strangers. We must remember how beautiful it is, and is reflected in all of our great religions and political tracts, all of our social philosophies and social values. We must let those basic principles of concern for our fellows in need come to the fore again, and not get lost in the chewing gum thinking of social banality that is often the reality of someone looking for our support.

I want to feel, and I am sure I speak for you as well, that no one should be driven to madness by not getting our support: support that we leave to the State to provide on our behalf. But it has to be good and wholesome, both in its use and in its delivery. UC at the moment is a flaming pig’s ear.