Cruel and chaotic? No, in the DWP’s fantasy land, universal credit is a huge success
Polly ToynbeeIn a visit to a jobcentre, staff told me all was fine. Off the record, others talk of brutal cuts causing starvation and despairFri 17 May 2019 01.00 EDT
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Come with me on an eerie visit, where we step through the looking glass into an alternative universe where everything is as good as can be. You will like it here. Everyone smiles: they only want to help their clients fulfil themselves, nothing bad ever happens here. They love their work. This little utopia is the Middlesbrough jobcentre. As everywhere, they are rolling out universal credit to new claimants or existing “clients” with any change of circumstance. Here they prompt unemployed or underemployed people into work or more work, telling them how many jobs to apply for, what appointments and courses to take, and (whisper it) with what penalties if they fail (“But that’s very, very rare”).https://67088484330272b80bd11a626d406ebd.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
It has taken me all of seven months’ applying to the Department for Work and Pensions to get here – my requests ignored, forgotten or parked, despite regular prodding. Pre-2010 I often sat in with jobcentre staff: but since then, in department after department, visiting any frontline is tortuous. With HMRC, eight years of requests to visit minimum-wage inspectors has yielded nothing – though they have never been outright refused.
Finally, here I am in a jobcentre I chose. Accompanied by a Whitehall press officer, I talk to work coaches and managers and sit in on some interviews with claimants. Recently the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, tweeted a little YouTube video of her visit to a Lancaster jobcentre, so I knew what to expect. “I love my job,” one member of staff told her. Another said: “The good thing about work coaches is we are the human side of [universal credit].” Rudd says to the camera: “It’s been a really inspiring visit,” to “hear first-hand about the really personal, tailored, caring approach that work coaches have with helping people into work”.Coming soon: the great universal credit deception | Aditya Chakrabortty
That’s exactly what they told me too, but does she actually believe this is how universal credit works?
I now guess why my visit just came through. My colleague Aditya Chakrabortty wrote on Tuesday about a leaked memo from DWP top brass planning a charm offensive to promote universal credit, with £250,000 wrap-around ads on the Metro newspaper’s front cover. They complain UC “is portrayed incorrectly and/or negatively in the media” with “negativity and scaremongering”.
The Middlesbrough staff did their valiant best to hold that line. I’ve met many jobcentre staff and most are genuinely decent people, trying to make the system work against the odds. But their answers on this supervised visit floated in airy realms beyond the credible. Have staff cuts made their caseloads harder? “I think cuts have made us work smarter and harder,” said one. How often do they sanction people? “We find sanctioning doesn’t help,” another said, adding, “We’re all passionate and proud about our work. We live here and we’ve all had friends and family using our services. We ask, how would I want my husband to be treated?”
What about benefit cuts as people move to UC? “My impression is that the vast majority get more when they move on to it,” says one. The Commons work and pensions select committee says the switch leaves 2.2 million people in work better off by £41 a week, but with another 3.2 million losing an average £48 a week, I ask if any workplace changes could make it easier to do more for clients? No, nothing they could think of. A test question: what did they think of wider cuts in Middlesbrough, where the council has been hit hard? “I’ve not noticed we’ve got a lack of anything round here since the cuts, and I live here.”
Visit schools, hospitals, councils or any public employees trying to deliver against a backdrop of the deepest cuts in living memory and you hear their determination and despair, what works and what doesn’t, pride mixed with frustration at lack of the right tools. But this felt like conversations with automata in Stepford. It felt like my visit in the old USSR to the national women’s committee led by cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, when they all clapped to hear every single Soviet female worker had donated voluntarily to the state’s peace fund.
Numerous reports reveal the chaos and cruelty of the UC upheaval. Arrogantly dismissing experts, the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith promised to “simplify” six benefits into one, varying the sum with each change in earnings and circumstance. At 10 times original costs, full rollout promised by 2013 is now pencilled in for 2023. The National Audit Office says it will never be value for money, or be proven to get more into work. George Osborne’s cuts leave claimants destitute and food banks swamped, with 73% in rent arrears.
Families half starve waiting the official five weeks for payment, or sink into debt. For every extra pound they earn, 63p is deducted: what if the rich paid 63% in income tax? Over the years, an informant inside another city jobcentre has told me what’s really happening. Yesterday, they told me it was “panic” in their office – some caseloads at 400, everything set aside to unblock urgent benefit payments. Yes, Rudd had eased things: sanctions targets were dropped, and the savagery had diminished from the days when they were ordered to catch out the vulnerable. My informant recalls the day their office made its first three-year sanction and the managers celebrated: Rudd has ended three-year sanctions, but they can still last many months.
Is Middlesbrough jobcentre an exceptionally happy planet? The local MP’s office deals with pile-ups of UC disaster cases. I asked the Middlesbrough staff if things had got better, but they denied they’d ever had sanction targets or whips on their backs. If they had admitted anything was ever less than pluperfectly flawless I might have believed them, but the DWP will need a more realistic script or its upcoming charm offensive will fall flat.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnistTopics
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