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Tory policies mean a Universal Credit nightmare over Christmas

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Issue 2585
Campaigning against Universal Credit in Brixton, south London
Campaigning against Universal Credit in Brixton, south London (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Christmas has been bitterly hard for people on the new Universal Credit (UC) regime. It means delays in payments, yet more brutal sanctions, and spiralling rent arrears for many.

Eileen, from West London who is on UC told Socialist Worker, “A few weeks ago I suddenly found myself without a job, without savings to last more than a week, and without a way to get benefits.

“I’m 50, I didn’t expect this. The care for my disabled son has broken down so I have to look after him, it’s hard to get work.

“I was told I couldn’t get anything on universal credit for weeks. I would have spent Christmas with nothing if it wasn’t for the foodbank. It’s my only lifeline.”

There has been constant evidence from claimants and charities about the hardship it brings, but the government has made only the tiniest changes to how it operates.

Fran Perry, a trustee of the Gingerbread charity that provides support for single parents, says, “Single parents are now being needlessly exposed to financial sanctions and further poverty. This at a crucial time in their child’s development.

“Parents are being asked to achieve the impossible – find suitably flexible employment that allows them to meet their parental caring responsibilities or risk financial sanctions.

The benefits crisis is putting extra strain on councils’ finances. Six months ago people were moved over to UC in Torfaen, South Wales.

Richard Davies, Torfaen council’s head of revenue and benefits, said, “We’ve seen an immense difference, we’ve seen a significant spike in rent arrears, more vulnerable people being brought into the process.

“I’ve been in public services since 1985 and I have never seen anything like it.”

Responses to a series of freedom of information requests submitted by the Labour Party have revealed many local authorities are allocating significant funds to support tenants with rent arrears and provide advice to help them navigate the new system.

Margaret Greenwood, the shadow minister for employment, said, “Universal credit is causing misery and hardship for thousands of families this Christmas and councils are being expected to pick up the pieces.

Newcastle city council reported that it was spending £390,000 supporting UC claimants, almost a quarter of which was for additional rent arrears support.

In London, Tower Hamlets council said it had set aside £5 million over three years to help those affected by the shift to UC.

None of this is shifting the Tories. Work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, has increasingly begun to publicly reject Labour’s portrayal of UC as creating hardship for welfare claimants.

Gauke said, “I strongly believe we have got a really good policy with this that will transform lives.” Indeed it is transforming lives—for the worse.

Labour has called on the government to “pause and fix” UC. A better slogan is “stop and scrap”.

Claimant suicide rates rise

Attempted suicides among out-of- work disability benefit claimants have more than doubled since the introduction of fit-to- work assessments in 2008, according to analysis by The Independent website.

New analysis of NHS data from surveys taken in 2007 and 2014 shows nearly half of people surveyed on out-of- work disability benefits said they had attempted to take their own lives in 2014. 

Results from the 2007 survey—taken a year before the work capability assessment test began—show 21 per cent of incapacity benefit claimants had attempted suicide, meaning the proportion more than doubled in seven years.

This assessment process was introduced in 2008 by the Labour government and accelerated under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist, said, “These results are staggering. It is difficult to overemphasise how large a jump in rates of attempted suicide this is. I cannot think of a greater jump in rates in any population. 

“The shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes is a national scandal that should be headline news. Making the workless feel worthless, and undeserving of support, has provoked a mental health emergency.”

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