Beware the philosopher’s stone
Sheila Gilmore, former MP for Edinburgh East and recently selected as Labour’s candidate in the next election, says many of the problems with Universal Credit were known from the start, and governments must resist the temptation to to find easy answers to complex problems.
I can imagine Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) civil servants telling new recruits “Beware the seemingly easy answer to complex problems”. The idea of simplifying the social security system, of creating one benefit where there were several, and easing changes in circumstances such as starting or stopping work, has for many years been the ‘philosopher’s stone’ of social security thinking. From 1997 to 2010, successive Labour social security ministers looked at the idea and rejected it as unworkable.
Of course the DWP civil servants may only have themselves to blame. I have a strong ‘Yes Minister’ image of them dusting off the idea and presenting the file to an incoming minister as an exciting new idea. In Ian Duncan-Smith they met someone who had his own agenda of ‘making work pay’, and people not, as he saw it, ‘sitting back’ on benefits for the rest of their life. As Secretary of State he was never a details person, and waved away every word of caution or criticism.
As a member of the Committee that went through the details of the Bill that brought about Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment and many other changes, I know that many of the problems which have come to pass were pointed out way back then. For example IDS argued that claimants should get used to monthly payments because that was the ‘world of work’. We heard evidence from experts in the field who demonstrated that weekly or fortnightly payments remained very common in much low paid work.
This pattern went on with proposal after proposal. The Lib Dems on the Committee offered some hand-wringing but didn’t support a single one of our amendments. And yes, Labour did oppose the Welfare Reform Bill, through committee, at Third Reading and in support of the amendments the House of Lords tried to insert (like on the Bedroom Tax). It gives little satisfaction to be able to say ‘we told you so’ as problem after problem emerges, because it is real people who are suffering the consequences.
On top of this flawed project, financial decisions taken by then Chancellor George Osborne meant that many of the promised ‘gains’ from the new system were removed. In particular, changes to the treatment of people in work undermined the idea of ‘making work pay’. This is what caused IDS to resign, not any admission by him that the roll-out wasn’t working.
If Labour does scrap Universal Credit, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of issues to be resolved in the social security system. Basic benefit levels have fallen relative to earnings over many years. There are problems and flaws in the system which have little to do with Universal Credit as such. Should we concentrate on finding solutions to some of the worst problems, such as what happens at times of transition to and from work? Or should we too look at a major change? And if so what? There is a lot of interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI). I confess to being a bit of a UBI sceptic. Should we too beware the philosopher’s stone?