This Saturday marks the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report, credited with laying the foundations of the modern welfare state, including a social insurance system to provide support in sickness and old age, and during periods 0f unemployment.
I want to see universal credit work. It has solid aims. Making work pay, ending dependency, simplifying a complicated system of top-ups and payments – these ambitions should be applauded. But if things do not go to plan, Citizens Advice bureaux will see many more cases of people struggling with benefit-related problems than the 2.2 million we deal with every year at present.
There are good grounds for concern. Look at Atos and the work capability assessments it carries out to determine whether disabled people should be entitled to employment and support allowance (ESA). Last quarter, Citizens Advice bureaux had more than 100,000 inquiries about ESA – a rise of 76%. More than 21,000 were appeals against decisions based on Atos assessments, mistakes that are subsequently overturned and have cost the taxpayer £60m over the past year.
Every mistake has a human as well as financial cost. The skilled electrician left paralysed by an accident after 40 years of work wrongly refused ESA; the mother, overpaid tax credits in error and now in debt, who has to turn to food parcels – these are the people who suffer when the system lets them down.
David Cameron can’t afford to get this wrong; if he does, it could cost him the next election. If I were in his position, there are a few things I would want to know. What kind of support will there be for people making the transition from weekly to monthly payments? An Ipsos Mori study for the Department for Work and Pensions found 67% of benefit claimants sometimes run out of money before their payment comes through and for 34% it happens most weeks.
This means people facing tough choices between putting food on the table and heating their home. It means debts mounting at dizzying speed when a £200 payday loan at 4,000% APR is rolled over and extra charges are piled on. It means bailiffs at the door. Citizens Advice sees people with these problems every day and they often need support to get to the end of a long month of careful budgeting.
How will complex families manage a single “household” payment, which is how universal credit will be paid? How will a parent in an abusive relationship be able to assert their independence if their partner controls the income?
And with most people expected to make and manage their claim online, what about the 8.5 million who have never used the internet and the 14.5 million who have limited ICT skills?
These concerns mark the difference between success and failure for welfare reform. Before thinking of cutting a further £10bn from the benefits bill in his autumn statement next week, George Osborne and his colleagues have to pass the acid test: can they make universal credit work? The short answer is that they must.
• Gillian Guy is chief executive of Citizens Advice, the umbrella body that leads, supports and promotes Citizens Advice bureaux across England and Wales
The Guardian by Gillian Guy