C4's Dispatches on Universal Credit - an end to victim-blaming?

Tue, 28/10/2014 - 14:21 -- nick

Universal Credit was this government's big idea on benefits, and its only attempt to make work pay that doesn't focus on reducing welfare to an unliveable level.

Iain Duncan Smith went travelling around Glasgow to speak to the poor and came back with the conviction that what was needed was a default online system that joined many - but not all - benefits together, and which people could use to declare any amount of work without ending their claim.

Channel 4's Dispatches has noticed the negative headlines that have swirled around the scheme, including the loss of around £130 million through mismanagement of its IT system, issues of debt, lost claims, and endless delays, and last night broadcast its investigation into Universal Credit (UC).

The programme's strength lay in making clear how the problems and misjudgements of Smith and his cronies have affected people's lives, and showing how disconnected the ideas of our political masters have become from reality.

To a policy wonk sitting in Westminster, having been through Oxbridge before joining the government and whose idea of a poor person is a scholarship boy at Eton, running an online system that joins six welfare payments together must seem like a fine idea.

The cost savings versus face-to-face claiming and claim management are obvious, and in this time of austerity what party could resist?

Connor has moderate learning difficulties and found the system impossible even with the help of his foster mother.

He was let down by both the IT system which registered two claims on his behalf and a jobcentre that took three weeks to grant him income support, winning an apology from DWP which said their staff were "confused" by his entitlement.

If the DWP's own staff are confused when trying to administer the scheme, how are untrained claimants supposed to cope?

Dispatches' answer is that many do not.

Jay Montrose and Nikki Colton, a couple who wanted to report their co-habitation, were told by jobcentre staff that they were not trained in this kind of case, and they had to spend three months living on a single person's payment while they waited for understanding to dawn on their advisors.

This resulted in terrible hardship particularly for Nikki who was pregnant at the time, and her unborn baby was forced into 'pre-child poverty' as it tried to grow while being fed only a packet of crisps each day.

We have seen much coverage recently of the inequality of life chances between rich and poor, but this is surely one of the worst examples of 'pre-birth inequality' that shows how people can be damned before they have a chance.

Jay and Nikki fell into debt in an attempt to hold their family together, but still refused to blame their jobcentre, pointing the finger at those in the DWP who have managed the roll out of UC.

They are right to: the IT system, which has already seen a write-off of £130 million, still cannot cope with any complex cases.

A spokesman for Warrington Citizens Advice Bureau found that in their area it was only dealing with childless people, but did not seem to be able to help them with changes in their circumstances.

One of the main plus points for UC was supposed to be that it smoothed the path between unemployment and work.

If a claim cannot be managed to account for this change the whole system is verging on pointless.

Mark Harper, a DWP minister deputising for hide-and-seek's Iain Duncan Smith, was pushed into the spotlight to answer criticisms, and parroted the government line to a tee.

He spoke apparently sincerely of 'piloting in small areas' to make sure it is working, but struggled more with the design and funding flaws.

When confronted with an email sent by a sanctions centre manager to her staff that described UC as "sinking" and begged for ideas to improve it, he simply stated how tickety-boo he had found things when he had visited another such centre.

Of course, you may believe that his finding "nothing but positive feedback" was either dishonest or the obvious result of a ministerial visit. What happened at your office the last time your boss's boss's boss's boss's boss turned up - junior staff, who have been drilled to keep schtum, raising problems, or smiling and bowing?

Dispatches conducted a survey of social housing landlords, and found that the move from fortnightly to monthly payments, and from direct payments to landlords to putting the money in claimants' bank accounts, meant that nine out of ten on UC were in rent arrears.

This is a far higher rate than those who are on other benefits experience, and shows its 'universality' is in creating poverty and problems.

The programme's real trump card was the uncovering of a whistleblower, who said staff training "isn't relevant...doesn't reflect recent changes to the Universal Credit system", and that attempts to raise this issue with DWP were ignored.

She also found that it was badly designed and lets staff down too, and simply cannot manage any complexity in cases.

It is rare that the result of government indifference to standards can be tracked right through a system like this; the couple living in poverty knew this was greatly due to poor training, the staff trying to help them knew, they told their bosses but still nothing was done.

Of course an official DWP statement denied any problems:

"There is no evidence that more complex cases cannot be dealt with successfully."

After this programme was aired, that evidence is in the public domain.

So Universal Credit has been mismanaged, poorly thought out and badly implemented.

But what about the programme itself?

For the first time in many years, a benefits and unemployment TV show was aired that didn't indulge in victim blaming.

Mainstream programming on the issue has deteriorated over the last few years, to the extent that even seeing the word 'benefit' in a title can make the blood run cold with dread.

Dispatches didn't feel the need to offer 'context' by touring the areas where those appearing lived, showing graffiti and broken windows, shouting kids on BMX bikes and people drinking in the street and asking us to judge all residents as morally lacking.

It focused on issues instead of personalities, a rarity in our reality TV-obsessed world which likes to promote poverty porn and tourism at the expense of hard facts.

Those who watched Dispatches came out better informed, and that made it stand out like a diamond in a sea of mud.