Paul McNamee: Universal Credit isn’t working. Time to fix it

Sajid Javid saw the need to change direction on medicinal cannabis after hearing heartbreaking stories of suffering. But why doesn't another government department do the same for the controversial benefits system?

At what point does a good idea become a spiralling mess that will tip people into terrible poverty, ruin and homelessness?

Now? Last week? A year ago? Nobody seems to know. But it’s a reality that is not going to ease.

Last week two significant things happened around Universal Credit. Universal Credit is the Good Idea.

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey admitted that some people would be worse off under Universal Credit. A percentage of families could lose £200 a month as they fall under the scheme. That is a huge, life-damaging amount for those who need it most.

At the same time her former boss Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of Universal Credit, the man for whom it is less a smart application of benefits and more of an ideological crusade, said the scheme needed a £2bn cash injection. Big injection.

At the heart of broken systems are personal stories

It’s worth rewinding. When the scheme was introduced by IDS in 2012 the idea was simple. Replace the complex benefits system of six payments – including Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance – with one monthly payment. It’ll cut fraud, they said. It’ll encourage the poorest households to learn monthly money management and it’ll make work more attractive than benefits. There was even a delay in first payment built in (it was six weeks, now it’s five) to echo the way first wages come in a new job. Which is fine if you have some savings already or means to support yourself. Not so good if you’re right on the margins, or have been beaten around by the hard winds of austerity. As people who need to claim Universal Credit frequently have.

The wheels started to come off early into the trial rollout. The plan for full rollout was extended from 2017 to 2023. Last year, around party conference season time, major problems with the IT system administering the payouts were identified. There was also a fear that civil servants who may have been able to help were focused on Brexit. The necessary work of government was being stilled.


The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

And despite all this, the scheme was pushed ahead. Even now, as the people behind Universal Credit admit it’s way short of funds and that it’s going to clobber those in need dramatically, there is no indication of any new or better plan.

Why not? At the heart of broken systems are personal stories. Last week, Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a major turnaround in government policy on cannabis. From November, 80,000 doctors will be allowed to prescribe medicinal cannabis. The medical advice has been overwhelming for some time. The MS Society said that 10,000 people suffering from multiple sclerosis would immediately benefit. Why take action now? According to Javid it’s because he was so moved by the “heartbreaking cases” he’d come across involving kids with serious illnesses. Good for him. Why not another branch of government then?

This week our featured vendor is Ann Warke. Ann is 53 and until last August worked in retail. She lost that job and due to delays in receiving Universal Credit – eight weeks – her life spiralled out of control. “There was no money,” she says, simply. As a threat of homelessness edged to her door, she came to The Big Issue. I’m glad The Big Issue is here for her. We are here as long as she needs to work selling the magazine.

Ann Warke
Ann says delays to her first Universal Credit payment left her without money for food

Hers is just one of many stories of people who are not being helped by the net that is supposed to be there.

It’s laudable to talk about encouraging a work rather than benefits mentality, but look at the reality. Look at Ann. Look at the many others who have been facing eviction notices, or who have lost their homes. Look at the individual stories of benefits sanctioned, or people declared fit for work when clearly they are no such thing. Show an ability to change when the human toll makes it clear that change is needed.

Sajid Javid did. The rest of government have now got no excuse. Lives depend on it.

Vendor image: Andrew Butler