At Prime Minister’s Questions Theresa May defended the roll out of Universal Credit by saying that the new benefit gets more people into work. Since July the Government has used the phrase, “[with] Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system”, time and time again.
While it is true, as with many DWP statements, it is seriously misleading without the proper context.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has compared the progress of people in the early Universal Credit trials with similar people who received Job Seekers Allowance. Using this comparison, those on Universal Credit (UC) did indeed do better, but with two enormous caveats:
1. DWP’s claims are true for 1 in 10 Universal Credit Claimants at best
The trial system for Universal Credit could only handle very simple claims. Participants had to be single, childless, healthy and unemployed. In practice they were mainly unemployed young single males. Inevitably this is the group with the fewest barriers to work.
It is not just the age and family circumstances that make the trial group unrepresentative. While people tend to equate benefit payments with unemployment, only a very small proportion of people receiving Universal Credit will be out-of-work and fit and available for work.
7-8 million families are expected to receive Universal Credit (UC). If the roll out of UC was completed today only around 750,000 people would be unemployed and available for work and would be in families with children – making them in re-employment terms very different from the trial group.
Most Universal credit claimants will be in-work but with a low income (~4 million claimants). Around 2.5 million will be out of work because they are sick or have a disability and around 750,000 will have caring responsibilities, usually for very young children. The DWP trial tells us nothing about these groups, who will form around 9 out of 10 claimants.Universal Credit is given to families, whereas today’s out of work benefit counts are given by individuals. This makes converting numbers on today’s benefits into numbers on fully rolled out … Continue reading
To understand DWP’s evidence it is important to understand that it applies to 1 in 10 potential Universal Credit claimants at best. It is also important to know that these are the claimants who are likely to face the fewest difficulties in the jobs market.
2. Universal Credit trials were very different to today’s Universal Credit system.
The Universal Credit trial system,called “live service” and currently in place in most jobcenters could only cope with simple claims and was essentially the old systems re-branded with a layer of administration to hold it all together. It was much simpler and very different from the mass produced version of Universal Credit that is being rolled-out across the country.
It is absolutely clear that being on the trial UC system was a very different experience from being on the new Universal Credit system. Part of this is due to the unique circumstances of the UC rollout and part of it is inherent in introducing a new system. During trials staff are specially selected and trained, resources are poured in to identify and solve problems, and the levels of focus and energy are much higher than normal. This is as it should be and an important part of developing a good system – but it does tend to make doing something different, like introducing a new benefit system, look better than the status quo, whether in reality it is or not.This is sometimes called the Hawthorne effect and is one reason why medical trials are “double blind”. Neither the doctor or the patient know who is getting the new drug thereby preventing honest … Continue reading
Good Evidence Misused
With this in mind it would be more accurate to say that:
“Universal Credit, delivered in a very different and more resource intensive way than the system currently being rolled out, has been shown to help a minority of UC claimants, with the most straightforward circumstances.“
The DWP research is good, the best evidence available is being used and the authors make clear the limitations of their work. The problem is that the DWP press office and government don’t. Instead of being used to enlighten and inform, good research has been manipulated into a crutch to support the hugely damaging policy of rolling out Universal Credit.
The roll out of Universal Credit is causing debt, rent arrears and food bank use. Misleading claims about the effectiveness of Universal Credit should not obscure that fact.
|↑1||Universal Credit is given to families, whereas today’s out of work benefit counts are given by individuals. This makes converting numbers on today’s benefits into numbers on fully rolled out Universal Credit problematic. The numbers are further complicated by the fact that one person can claim a number of benefits simultaneously. As a result the numbers used here are rounded illustrative estimates from DWP and HMRC statistics and the Universal Credit Impact Assessment (which should be treated with caution as it has not been updated since substantial changes to the benefit have been introduced)|
|↑2||called “live service” and currently in place in most jobcenters|
|↑3||This is sometimes called the Hawthorne effect and is one reason why medical trials are “double blind”. Neither the doctor or the patient know who is getting the new drug thereby preventing honest enthusiasm shaping how patients are treated and affecting results.|