The future of the left since 1884

Universal misery

Lives are being damaged by the rollout of universal credit and many of those worst hit are struggling in low-paid work, writes Sarah Owen.


This government stubbornly pursues universal credit like a dog refusing to give up its bone – even in the face of a series of failures, a lack of savings and increased child poverty. Every work and pensions minister, including the latest one, seems deaf to the pleas from politicians, charities and even the United Nations to halt the rollout and put a stop to what the UN has called the ‘great misery’ inflicted on thousands of people across the country.
There are now almost 1 million people receiving universal credit. Nearly 40 per cent of those are in work. Yet we are seeing more and more reports of crippling delays in payments, with foodbank use rocketing in areas following rollouts. The Trussell Trust reports an average increase in demand of 52 per cent at its foodbanks in the 12 months following the switch to universal credit.
Behind these damning statistics lie the real lives of people being damaged by a broken system. When I volunteered for a day with my local foodbank, it was early in the days of universal credit but the signs that something was seriously wrong were already there. I met a veteran who told me he had gone without money for weeks and was eking out what he had left by living – existing – in just one room of his flat. This former soldier shared with me his shame at having to use the foodbank, which, at the time of my visit, was providing 40,000 meals a year to people facing crisis – and is now providing 88,500.
That foodbank is in Hastings, the constituency of Amber Rudd, who as work and pensions secretary is the politician with the power now to stop the suffering. Unfortunately, previous form shows us that Amber Rudd won’t stop the roll-out. She knows the statistics and the increased need on her own patch, yet she suffers from something that afflicts too many politicians – never admitting when they are wrong.
So, apart from the obvious solution of fighting for a Labour government, what can we do?
For trade unions, universal credit is a workplace issue. The very people that universal credit was supposed to help are the people at the sharp end of its failings; the 10 million people in the UK employed in insecure work with low pay and changeable hours.
Rather than encouraging and enabling people to work more, in too many cases it has left workers out of pocket. Universal credit takes 63p from every £1 once you earn over a certain amount. This has a major impact on certain sectors: we see it particularly among our members in retail, from Asda to Amazon and in the public sector, from carers to caterers.
The way the system works means, for example, that when a school support worker contracted to work for 22 hours per week can’t pay their bills with what they earn, they would get usually £404 universal credit a month, if they don’t do overtime.
But if that employee decides or is forced to do overtime, the deductions for overtime from their universal credit mean they effectively work for the equivalent of just £2.50 per hour. This is not a hypothetical situation – it is the experience of one single mum who works at her local school in the south east. She is just like thousands of members we represent.
Unions are now providing practical help to our members. GMB and the Child Poverty Action Group recently signed an agreement to train 100 people across the union in understanding universal credit and using CPAG’s advice hotline and email to steer our members through the system.
Universal credit was supposed to make work pay, but that has not been the reality. Instead far too many workers are being unfairly penalised. Until people have a government that is prepared to protect them and their rights, charities will have to continue being the last resort, trade unions will have to continue resisting the attacks on workers and the Labour movement will have to continue fighting this most callous of Tory governments.

Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen is a political officer for the GMB and a member of Labour’s national executive committee


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