In Brighton last weekend, the Labour party conference buzzed with two big, emotive issues.
The one that hit the headlines was Labour’s Brexit policy, entwined with the attempted defenestration of Tom Watson and questions over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But the other hot issue was Universal Credit. A groundswell of calls for UC to be scrapped was driven by stories from people who have been pulled into debt and hardship by design flaws like the minimum five week wait, unaffordable debt repayments and a service which many have found lacking in both justice and compassion.
For some on the left, ‘Universal Credit’ has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with our social security system - even though many of the biggest problems have been caused by separate policies, like the benefit freeze. It was widely expected that John McDonnell’s conference speech would include a commitment to scrap Universal Credit. The fact that he actually only restated Labour’s existing policy of stopping the rollout went unnoticed by many. Jeremy Corbyn’s speech was then expected to include the big bang UC abolition - but the Supreme Court bombshell would have buried policy announcements, so that didn’t happen either.
Finally, today, the announcement came. Or did it?
All the bad news stories about Universal Credit make it good politics to scrap it. But my worry was about what would come next. Millions caught up in the rising tide of poverty could be hit by yet more upheaval if Labour quickly introduced yet another system or reverted to the problematic patchwork of old benefits. Fortunately, the headline hides a more sensible approach.
Labour have rightly focused on quickly fixing some of the biggest factors pulling people into poverty and debt, for example, the five-week-wait and limiting support to only two children in a family. They have also committed to more flexibility on payments and support for people who struggle with the digital only service - to better match the realities of people’s lives. If Labour come to power, the challenge for the new Department for Social Security will be to implement these without creating even more delays for claimants.
In the longer term, we need to redesign the social security system to make it a public service that we can all rely on when times are tough; and that is fit for modern demographics and markets. It should command public confidence and deliver value for money. And we should not expect social security to provide the whole solution to poverty. Better jobs, thriving local economies and access to affordable homes will loosen the grip of poverty across the UK. Right now, social security has to do far too much to make up for failures elsewhere.
In the meantime, reforming Universal Credit is the right thing to do, but it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are lots of potentially poverty-fighting aspects of UC that should not be thoughtlessly dropped. It is unacceptable that 3 million people in poverty are set to be pulled deeper by moving onto UC; but the 5 million people in poverty who should see their incomes rise under UC should not pay for yet another new system. We should respect the voices bravely speaking up about their experience of problems with UC; but we must also listen to the quieter voices of those who have benefited from aspects of UC and dread yet more upheaval and structural change.
The Conservative government has announced a number of changes to Universal Credit, including reducing the waiting period, increasing work allowances, lowering debt repayments and enabling previous benefits to ‘run-on’ while people move over. As Secretary of State, Amber Rudd placed a welcome emphasis on creating a compassionate service. As they go into their conference this weekend, the challenge for the Conservative party now will be to show that they can go further and faster - fixing UC’s flaws and proving that it can fulfil its early promise.