Coronavirus is shining a light on the wretched universal credit system | Daniel Lavelle | Opinion

British governments are notoriously bad at recognising a crisis until it impacts them, or their class, directly. London’s pioneering sanitation system was not developed until the cholera epidemics of the early 19th century had reached parliament’s windows, with the “Great Stink” wafting in from the Thames. Similarly, now that the middle classes are sharing the same unemployment line as the people who serve them their morning lattes, welfare reform has become a priority.

Nearly a million new universal credit (UC) claims have exposed the government’s boasts about the UK being the “jobs factory of Europe” for the thinly veiled lie that it is. Yes, last year UK unemployment fell to its lowest level since January 1975; and the Office for National Statistics found that the UK employment rate in the three months to January 2020 was at a joint record high of 76.5%. But this all looks less fantastic when you dig a little deeper into those figures. Almost 1 million workers are on zero-hours contracts, which means there’s no guarantee that the individuals who comprise those stats are the same from one day to the next.

Workers in the gig economy are easily hired. It’s also never been easier to fire them, and (big surprise) that’s exactly what employers are doing during the lockdown. Almost 5 million self-employed workers soon found themselves in the same boat, without a clue about where their next paycheque would be coming from. Now a million of those workers are leaning on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for help.

UC has been riven with dysfunction since its inception. Long waiting times between initial claims and first payments have driven many people into debt, causing them to prioritise food and bills over their rent. Compounding this is the draconian sanctioning system that has left many penniless over things like arriving a few minutes late for an appointment. Destitution is often the consequence, with up to 65% of local authorities saying that UC has contributed to homelessness in their community.

This has gone largely unnoticed by the general public over the years, but the coronavirus pandemic has brought it into focus, and has revealed the true fragility of our social institutions. At the beginning of this crisis, chancellor Rishi Sunak darted back and forth like an exasperated shopper who keeps misplacing their grocery list, announcing half-measure after half-measure in a desperate attempt to put a tourniquet on the country’s haemorrhaging economy.

Sunak announced a package of emergency measures to compensate employers, then he remembered employees a few days later. Then landlords got a mortgage holiday, but no such luck for tenants until the chancellor remembered them after another few days. Sunak also completely forgot about the millions of self-employed workers who were left with no means of income until, true to form, he remembered their existence days later.

The confusion has overwhelmed the welfare system. Over nine days in March, almost 500,000 people made a claim for UC. Now, almost a million claims have overwhelmed jobcentres, causing the DWP to reassign 10,000 workers to process claims.

People may be surprised to learn that I’m one of those claimants. I’m a journalist who writes for national newspapers and I’ve even been fortunate enough to receive awards for my writing. You might ask: why am I depending on the welfare system for support?

I’m a freelancer, which means, like many people working on precarious employment contracts, I cannot predict my income from one month to the next. Some months I do OK, during others I worry about paying my rent on time. Twenty years ago my job may have afforded me more financial stability, but due to the high cost of living, extortionate rents and stagnating wages, I’m living paycheque to paycheque in cramped shared housing.

I was told by my jobcentre adviser that, due to the lockdown, I wouldn’t be expected to seek employment, attend appointments and jump through any other hoops that claimants are usually confronted with. The logic is sound: people can’t work, so they can hardly be expected to look for it. Why can’t some of this compassion be brought into the process in ordinary times?

Just like the million people claiming UC in lockdown, unemployed people in ordinary times are not the workshy shirkers depicted by some newspapers. Most are unemployed due to disadvantage or lack of opportunity. Most would prefer to be earning a decent living over depending on meagre benefits, paid to them by a system determined to catch them out at every turn.

The notion that lots of people are a missed payslip away from poverty has been a well-worn trope over the last decade. Hopefully, with a million new UC claimants, doubters will stop rolling their eyes when they hear it.

Daniel Lavelle writes on mental health, homelessness and social care

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