Today there is a good news story about Universal Credit on the front page of newspapers. It is called “Universal Credit Uncovered” and despite the lack of branding it is advertising payed for by the Government to “Bust Myths” about Universal Credit. If you wish to feel happy and delude yourself that all is well in the world I suggest you read it. Your taxes part paid the estimated £250,000 cost after all. But if you miss it you will get another chance as you are helping to pay for nine full front page adds over the next few months.
Prof Philip Alston the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty has published his full UK report today. It did not make the front pages. It is the most devastating analysis of the policies trapping people in poverty I have ever read. In 21 pages he covers the effects of reduced funding for local authorities, of legal aid, and of the benefits system. He notes what we have tried to articulate – that damage is being created not only by a lack of money but by a lack of respect, a devaluing of people experiencing poverty and the brutal attitude that is baked into Universal Credit.null
Prof Alston also points out the infuriating lack of acknowledgement by Government that problems exist. Instead Government points to record employment figures as proof all is well – without mentioning that 7 in 10 children held back by poverty live in working families. It blames politically motivated enemies (presumably including the UN, the National Audit Office, the British Medical Association, the Women’s Institute as well as the Churches) for the myths that smear the reputation of Universal Credit.
If you re-enter the shiny world of the advertorial “Universal Credit Uncovered” trumpets how “People move into work faster than on the old system”. It doesn’t mention that the data they are quoting is from the old trial system where people got more money, more time with support workers and didn’t use Digital by Default IT system they will be forced to use now. It also didn’t mention the trial only admitted people with no significant barriers to work – single, healthy, childless people in rented accommodation.
You might want to know if Universal Credit helps families with children. If they had published the results of the trial into families and employment (which was due in 2017) that could indeed have been front page news we didn’t need to pay for – but that wasn’t included.
If you are wondering which reality you should believe, I suggest you talk to people who receive Universal Credit or those who work alongside them. This week, I was privileged to attend the premier of a play called “The Vortex”. A theatre company called Applecart worked with women from South London Methodist Mission to tell part of their story.
Sitting in a room in the Houses of Parliament with a number of MPs and Lords we saw the play and heard directly from some of the women. (The Department of Work and Pensions despite many invitations did not send a minister or official). Perhaps this is unsurprising as the stories told were never likely to make it into the DWP’s next advertisement feature. Many of them look very similar to the stories reported by Prof Alston.
One of the themes of the play was hope – and how Universal Credit offered very little hope to these women. I however came away with a huge sense of hope. Seeing women who have been held back and treated appallingly with the courage to stand up in a room in Parliament and challenge the powerful was extraordinary. Winnie (a Methodist Pioneer Minister), the force of nature that had a vision for this project, offered compassion, anger and prophecy in equal measure. I left with a renewed hope that God, at work through the churches, has the power to enrich lives, communities and ultimately our troubled society.
As for Universal Credit, no amount of high-priced advertising can save its reputation. If Prof Alston’s report doesn’t see to that, Winnie and the women from Bermondsey will. The question now is how quickly and how far the system will change and how we ensure dignity and respect gets baked into our social security system from now on.