Universal Credit – unpleasant and oppressive

I worked for what is now the DWP for nearly forty-six years before I retired at the end of March.

I have seen change constantly throughout my working life; Supplementary Benefit became Income Support which then became Jobseeker’s Allowance for the unemployed and Employment and Support Allowance for the sick and now Universal Credit (UC), which superficially has a number of similarities to Supplementary Benefit. What goes around comes around.

On the day I left DWP, I said publicly to my friends and colleagues that a big reason in going now was because I could not deliver UC.

The one positive of this Tory flagship is its attempt to simply a complex system of benefits for working age people, but there is little else positive about it. The concept came out of the mind of a man, Iain Duncan-Smith, who really does believe in Victorian values and one of those values is that anyone who does not work is a member of the undeserving poor.
Now I was no soft touch about job seekers who were perfectly capable of working, but chose to use benefits as a way of escaping getting a job. Equally, some of those on what are officially termed 1inactive benefits have no prospect of work in the present and many will not work in the medium to long term either.

These people are entitled to be supported by a welfare state that common people fought for and should not be demonised by Duncan-Smith or anyone else.

But the slogan of UC is Make Work Pay (uncomfortably close for my liking to Arbeit Macht Frei) and the logic of the system is that everyone should be made (or as DWP would prefer, assisted) to work.

UC also gives the state tremendous power over people’s lives. It has taken 2six benefits and rolled them into one, so that everyone is dependent on one single monthly payment to cover everything. If you have no other source of income, that is a tremendous control mechanism that the state holds in its hands. If you are on a limited income, it is still a major means of control.

The media is full of UC horror stories and criticism of sanctions is widespread. I am not side stepping either issue, but since I never saw any of them in my former place of work, I am not in a position to talk first-hand about either. Nevertheless, I am not doubting at all that horror stories exist and sanctions have been imposed; the latter are an inherent part of the system.

Two organisations of which I am a member, the PCS and Unite (Community arm) unions, have pledged to work together for the scrapping of sanctions (the evidence is that they do not achieve the outcome for which DWP impose them) and for the reform of UC, although this is now regularly turning into calls to scrap the system completely.

Whether even a Corbyn-led Labour government would have the resources to scrap UC and replace it with something else or alternatively return to the benefits of the past is not clear cut. Corbyn has promised reform right across society and whether there is enough money to fund everything is something that can only be determined when he is in power.
Remember that Corbyn is not demanding that the commanding heights of the economy be taken into public ownership and control, which would be the way in ensuring money was there for everything.

So far, I have not mentioned my former colleagues who do deliver UC. Nothing which I have written is a criticism of them. They are civil servants and they have to carry out government policy. Well, let’s strip that of its official gloss and say most are low-paid wage slaves (up to 40 per cent are claiming or will need to claim UC) who face disciplinary sanctions themselves or the sack if they don’t do what their leaders tell them.

Believe me there is almost a cult (or should that be occult) mentality amongst DWP leaders about driving their staff to make UC the celebration the Tories desire. Everything else that you expect from leaders is put on the back burner in this fervour to show the world that UC is working perfectly. I was a PCS rep and saw the needs of colleagues brushed aside on the grounds that requests about changing working patterns when there were caring needs for children, elderly relatives or someone in the family was ill were secondary to the department’s requirement to make UC an amazing success.

I say with complete honesty that DWP was becoming an unpleasant and quite oppressive place to work and I don’t miss not being in that atmosphere at all. Every day I experienced staff becoming increasingly disillusioned by the amount of spin they are fed about the ‘exciting opportunities’ UC provides.

I consider myself lucky that I was able to get out when I did, many of my friends and former colleagues are not so fortunate.

Tony Church

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