Impending introduction of the new Universal Credit benefits system

For some time communists have been watching to see the exact nature of the reforms which the Tory-LibDem Coalition Government will be making to the benefits system. Letters from Jobcentre Plus and local authorities have begun to arrive through people’s letterboxes, and millions of claimants are beginning to get a clearer picture of what life will be like after April this year.

Despite, and probably because of (!) wide-spread apathy and confusion, sweeping changes to the benefits system are going to be phased in from April this year. An extensive overhaul of the existing system will see changes to almost every aspect of existing arrangements. The slash will see a whole host of means tested benefits eventually abolished, and an entirely new system of ‘universal credit’ put in its place. Rather than making things ‘simpler’ and ‘fairer’ the new scheme should see the universal impoverishment of many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of working class people.

The changes

The gist of the changes runs thus:

‘Universal Credit’ will replace nearly all means-tested benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance (JSA), income-related employment and Support Allowance, tax credits (inc. Child Tax Credit) and Housing Benefit. All these are claimed to varying degrees by millions of working and unemployed individuals, families and young people right across the country. There will be a cap on the total amount of benefit an individual or couple can receive, a cut to Housing Benefit and the introduction of the now infamous ‘bedroom tax’, abolition of Council Tax Benefit and the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by PIP (personal Independence Payment).

Universal Credit will begin being phased in from April, with national take-up by October, and so as to avoid the absolute clog up and collapse of the entire system (which may happen anyway!) individuals will be transferred across over the next couple of years, easing the congestion in the system and hopefully (for the bourgeoisie) managing and dissipating the combined collective anger of millions.

Caps to overall benefits will be introduced across London boroughs in April, with national take-up by September 2013. A total cap for a single person will be set at £350 a week and couples and single-parents £500 regardless of the children. Housing Benefit cuts and new local authority administered systems of Council Tax Benefit (to replace the national Council Tax Benefit) will come in from April – with many thousands already receiving letters from large authorities like Birmingham whose Labour administration has chosen to make the unemployed pay up to 20% of their Council Tax despite the fact they may be unemployed, sick etc.

As for PIP, schemes will run from April but most take-up will be from June 2013 with all new claims being for PIP and not DLA.

In addition – all the new claims will now be paid monthly, and the claimant will be expected to manage his or her account ‘online’, arranging for rent payments etc. We are told that this is certainly not being done to make life awkward for new claimants (!), those with eye impairments and other disabilities, nor to make it near impossible for people of a certain age with few computer skills to receive benefits.

Ostensibly the ‘universal’ nature of the new system will ‘streamline’ and ‘simplify’ a messy benefits structure; the reality is that the new system aims to heap the crisis of capitalism firmly upon the backs of the working classes. Its scale is striking testament to the free hand and sheer audacity which the ruling classes feel they have over the majority of British society. It is at both a sign of their contempt at a pitifully weak and poorly organised working class and a declaration of their total desperation and anxiety as to what to do to extricate themselves from a systemic crisis from which they can see no escape.

Court of Appeal ruling on workfare

In a society where the fighting spirit of the working class has been continually sapped and drained by labour leaders wedded to social democracy and a ‘take-it-cause-it-could-be-worse’ attitude from Labour Party apologists for 13 years, it is unsurprising that there has been little if any concerted action taken by working people and the unemployed to stop the onslaught which set in some time ago. What is perhaps remarkable about the latest changes is the scale and brass face of those pushing through the changes. As usual, the only opposition to the various schemes of the government have been conducted through the courts rather than in the streets. But a welcome victory came on 12 February at a ruling in the Court of Appeal that some aspects of the government’s work schemes were unlawful and those who had their benefits taken for not complying with attempts at forced labour were in the right. Sophie Warnes writing in the Independent reported thus:

“…there were two people involved in bringing this case to the Court of Appeal – Cait Reilly, and Jamieson Wilson.

Cait Reilly has been fighting this for quite a while. Last year she came to prominence as the Jobcentre had told the 24-year-old graduate to take on unpaid work at Poundland for ‘work experience’ or lose her benefits. This threat pushed her to quit her voluntary role which was in the sector she trained in. She said of the placement when the case first came to light: I came out with nothing; Poundland gained considerably. For me, this unpaid labour scheme lasted only two weeks, but some people, as part of the government’s work programme, will have to do such unpaid work for up to six months – longer than the community service orders handed out to many criminals.

Jamieson Wilson, 40, was sanctioned, losing his jobseekers’ allowance for six months after refusing to participate in a scheme requiring him to work 30 hours a week for six months unpaid.

The judgement is something of a victory for those who believe that people should be paid for the work they do, no doubt. However, as Barrister Adam Wagner has pointed out on twitter, the judgement was given on a technicality rather than because the three judges think it’s inherently wrong to force someone to work for nothing.

The statement from the lawyers involved explains that actually, the judges found that the Secretary of State had acted beyond the powers given to him by Parliament by failing to provide any detail about the schemes. The government was found to have bypassed Parliament by introducing the Back to Work schemes administratively under an umbrella scheme known as the Employment, Skills and Enterprise Scheme, claiming the need for flexibility’.

The DWP’s press office response is really quite telling, too. As far as they are concerned, it’s a ‘disappointment’, but the feeling I get is that they will pretty much be continuing business as usual. It’s not unusual for people to be told the wrong thing by advisers at the Jobcentre, so I wonder if claimants will be directly told that they can claim the money back, and that work programmes are not compulsory. From my experience with the Jobcentre, the management don’t even understand their own rules, let alone the staff, so I can’t imagine them being straightforward with claimants from now on .”

The response of the ruling class when confronted by the unhelpful decisions of their own courts is merely to change the laws and regulations to suit – which, incidentally, is precisely what is being planned.

The repeated mantra of the Coalition Government is that the new system “will make work pay“. They fail of course to highlight that at best estimates there are at any time merely 500,000 job vacancies for the 2.5 million officially classed as unemployed. In a recent interview with James O’Brien on LBC 93.7fm Iain Duncan-Smith the cretinous Work and Pensions Secretary got himself into an argument over the above named case. In so doing he failed to untie himself from his legally and factually incorrect statement to the effect that voluntary (read: coerced and soon-to-be forced) labour provided by jobless people for the likes of Poundland is actually paid labour! Duncan-Smith asked “What do you think we’re paying them benefits for“(!) despite clear precedents in law and statements made by the Department of Work and Pensions itself that Jobseekers Allowance is not a payment for work or labour! If the likes of Poundland wish to have workers they and NOT the British taxpayer should pay them! Such remarks also make irrelevant all such concepts as a minimum wage, as such a concept flies out of the window if labour can be forced from the jobless on the pain of losing their benefits and given over to mega-rich profiteering firms like Poundland!

The way forward

The British working class really does find itself in a lamentable state of affairs. Dominated by a sickly and parasitic labour aristocracy who fawn over wizened social democrats and yearn to be cogs in the great mechanisms of power they’ll do anything for their day out to visit the local geriatric MP in Parliament, sit on a committee or Quango, and be consulted in some bullshit White Paper or consultation. How many trade union leaders do little for their members whilst spending all their time (and members money) promoting their own personal careers?! These individuals dream of being hauled before an inquiry or asked to sit at the Lord Mayors side. These cockroaches dominate our labour unions and local politics, and it is not surprising that working people have absolutely no time for any of them. But we’re going to need to wrestle with these thugs and lard arses, wrestle them out of the way and off of our backs! More and more working people are daily being faced with the stark realities of capitalism; hunger, destitution, desperation and depression. There is only misery or struggle. Either we turn to escapism, drugs and alcohol, or we must turn and face the possibility of a brighter socialist future, but it’s a future we’re going to have to fight for. Communists and revolutionaries have a significant role to play in the coming years. We offer no well-healed jobs, easy promotions or council seats, and it’s very unlikely you’ll get called to the next Lord Mayor’s procession. The working class needs leaders, people capable of struggle and sacrifice, men and women prepared to write a new, revolutionary and glorious chapter in the history of the British working class movement. It will not happen on its own. The fight back will not drop from the skies nor can it be instigated by the hordes of wooly-jumpered college and university professors who make up the cadre of the Trotskyist parties, nor their snidy, well-heeled but socially awkward brood who are much more averse to scandal, double dealing, orgies and back-stabbing. The class fighters of tomorrow will be walking in and out of the jobcentres, hospitals, factories and city schools which we have all around us. It’s up to us to break the media cordon on socialist ideas, it’s up to us to put to these workers the socialist alternative and give the shining examples from international working class history, culture and achievement. It time to get proselytising comrades!