Welfare rights in the age of universal credit

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This week we publish our latest Welfare Benefits and Tax Credits Handbook – indispensable for those advisers and frontline workers who need comprehensive, up-to-date information and, crucially, the relevant law to challenge decisions.

The advent of universal credit makes the Handbook essential for anyone working with families at risk of poverty. The system is changing, is complex and confusing, and is poorly understood – even by decision-makers.

The need for a strong and healthy welfare rights movement is desperately clear. Both in the micro (advice for families) but also in the macro (system change).

Working together – CPAG, welfare rights advisers and frontline workers – we can help identify where the system is failing and promote to policymakers changes in policy and practice that will make a difference to families.

We can continue to push for improvements to universal credit, and the wider social security system, to make it better for children and families. Universal credit was billed as ‘welfare that works’, and a policy that would ‘combat poverty’. But as it’s being rolled-out we’re seeing that it doesn’t ‘work’ for many of the people it’s supposed to. And when it comes to combating poverty, we’ve projected it will break its promises there too. It’s hardly surprising when it’s had to limp on through huge cuts and changes.

Learning from the universal credit roll-out

It feels an age since the universal credit white paper was published in 2011. It’s not had a smooth start in life: at one stage, the steady accumulation of delays, ministerial obfuscation and damning National Audit Office reports seemed to place its future in doubt. But whatever we think of its strengths and weaknesses, universal credit is coming. The roll-out of the ‘full service’ appears to be happening on time, and it undoubtedly remains a key – if not the key – priority for the new Work and Pensions Secretary.

As the roll-out progresses, building a dialogue with welfare rights advisers on what is working well and what isn’t should be a priority for the Department for Work and Pensions. Our ‘early warning system’ project in Scotland is a fine example of how this can be done. Over 3,000 cases have been gathered from frontline workers, including welfare rights advisers, housing officers and support workers. These cases have informed our policy work – influencing local authorities and leading to a number of service improvements.

We’re expanding the early warning system to the rest of the UK. This work will strengthen our evidence base and ensure our campaigning work continues to be informed not only by our in-depth knowledge of the social security system, but also by the realities on the ground – enabling us to put problems in their proper context and identify solutions that work.

I strongly encourage everyone working in welfare rights advice to sign up to our ‘early warning system’ and submit examples of where the system is not working.

It is one thing to provide early warning of problems and propose solutions to fix them, but quite another for them to be acted on by policymakers. We will be strongly making the case to the DWP to act in response to issues we raise: it must surely want to avoid a universal credit ‘meltdown’ – the fall-out for families (and politically) would be huge.

Our urgent role

Of course there are some well-publicised problems with universal credit on which we, and others, have already provided early warning and have seen little action – most notably, its adequacy in helping families with their living costs. Not only are people worse off under universal credit than they were under tax credits, but they are also worse off on today’s version of universal credit than the version originally introduced in 2013.

Our urgent role is to work with advisers around the country – in local advice centres, in local government and in the voluntary sector – to secure improvements to universal credit to protect families as much as we can. Just as our Handbook is indispensable to advisers, the welfare rights movement is no less essential to our society.