Richard Garside summarises the early developments in the coalition government's ambitious and controversial Universal Credit programme.
This is an edited version of the welfare reform section from UK Justice Policy Review Volume 1.
Social security, or ‘welfare’, is an area of policy formally distinct from the criminal justice process. So why are these developments being covered here, in a review primarily focused on criminal justice policy developments?
Though distinct, the processes and operations of the welfare system abut and interact with the criminal justice process. Those subject to various forms of criminal justice sanction, for instance, are also regularly processed through the social security system. Prisoners disproportionately come from a background of poverty and unemployment. For released prisoners, accessing housing benefit and other forms of social support is often a key priority. In different ways then, the welfare state and the criminal justice system can be thought of as contrasting, though complementary, means of managing certain populations.
Receipt of social security support also generally comes with sanctions for those who do not comply; so-called ‘conditionality’ - for example, the reduction in Jobseekers Allowance should a claimant be deemed to have rejected employment without an acceptable reason. Under the coalition, Labour’s strict rules relating to conditionality were set to be tightened further. The boundary between the punitive sanctions of the welfare system and some forms of punishment experienced by those in the criminal justice system is arguably increasingly blurred as a result.
The coalition agreement only committed the government to ‘investigate’ a simplification of the benefits system. The Queen’s Speech five days later made a firmer pledge that the ‘benefits system will be made fairer and simpler’. The plans for the Universal Credit that emerged a couple of months later represented the most ambitious overhaul of the social security system for a number of years. At their heart was a belief that the benefits system should be an active mechanism for getting people into work, 'not just a passive money dispenser', to quote a 2009 report from the Centre for Social Justice.
Under the Universal Credit a range of existing benefits would be amalgamated. Recipients would receive a basic amount, topped up to take account of specific needs relating to disability, caring responsibilities, housing costs, and children. A single taper rate would smooth the existing bumpy withdrawal of benefit as income rises. The entire system would be administered by the DWP, in place of the existing mix of different departments and agencies. The result, the White Paper claimed, would be a virtuous circle. Bureaucratic rationalisation would reduce administration costs, as well as tackle fraud and incorrect payments. Recipients would also be better off. ‘Universal Credit could lift as many as 350,000 children and 500,000 working-age adults out of poverty,’ stated the paper.
The simplicity of the Universal Credit proposition and the promised savings and benefits ensured broad support. A number of significant questions and controversies nonetheless emerged in and around the welfare reform programme.