I am writing this as a member of Totnes Labour Party’s Disability and Benefits Working Group, which was formed in response to the proposed roll out of Universal Credit in this area from September 2018.
The Working Group met with Sarah Wollaston in July to ask her to request a pause in the rollout until the issues which affect so many are resolved. This was followed up on 4th October when the group met with the MP and Alok Sharma – Minister responsible for employment and the roll out of UC.
Both Sarah Wollaston and Alok Sharma supported the party line that everything was working ‘fine’ and any required changes were minimal. Just the following week the deeply flawed benefit was widely discredited with many voices including the National Audit Office, Child Poverty Action Group, and the Disability Rights Consortium all calling to pause and fix Universal Credit. Esther McVey herself was forced to admit that there would be “winners and losers”. (McVey subsequently resigned from her Work and Pensions Secretary cabinet post over PM May’s proposed Brexit deal).
The campaign members then approached Totnes Town Council for their support on behalf of local residents. Labour Councillor
Louise Webberley put forward the following motion:
“I would ask the Town Council to write to Sarah Wollaston M.P. and to Esther Mcvey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to pause the full role out of universal credit whilst necessary amendments to it are made. Without the vital changes needed, it is highly likely that universal credit will have a significant, detrimental impact on our residents in Totnes and South Hams as a whole. Esther McVey has herself acknowledged that many people will be at a financial loss as a result of their benefits being consolidated into one payment.”
Totnes Town Council voted unanimously in favour of the motion.
Believing that the South Hams District Council would have similar sympathy for the negative impact that Universal Credit is having on many hundreds of local residents, the group put forward the same request at the district council meeting last Thursday 22nd of November.
But despite the problems with Universal Credit, the Conservative-dominated Executive Committee of SHDC did not support the request to pause the roll out, and decided to follow the route being presented by various Government Ministers and Conservative MPs, maintaining that ‘Universal Credit was successful’.
The full SHDC council also later voted against the motion, with the Greens and Lib Dems voting for the request for a pause in the roll-out.
This ‘head in the sand’, ‘everything is fine’ attitude was not helpful and did not recognise that changes to UC are urgently required.
Meanwhile the self-employed, single parent families with more than two children and disabled people living alone will continue to suffer, and be disadvantaged, and made worse off by this benefit.
The United Nations special rapporteur into extreme poverty, human rights lawyer Philip Alston, speaking after his fact-finding tour of some of Britain’s poorest areas recently said that Universal Credit has “plunged people into misery and despair” and that it’s “harsh, unnecessary and gratuitous”.
He went on to point out how it adversely affects women as single parent claimants: “There is a really remarkable gender dimension to many of the reforms,” he told a briefing in Westminster.
“If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.”
Government ministers, says Alston, are in denial about the problems.
The situation is now being compounded by SHDC. Their consultation document concerning changes to Council Tax Reduction aligns itself with Universal Credit using the same discriminatory criteria in assessment.
We believe that these proposed changes should also be delayed until such time as UC problems are resolved.
UC is creating severe problems for many people who are now having to claim this benefit. From this week (commencing 26/11/18) anyone having to claim will not receive any money until after Christmas.
The offer of an ‘advance’ will put people into debt which is not of their making, and which will be reclaimed by a deduction of 40% in the UC award for the following year.
Many are working families and those that will definitely lose out will be self-employed (an increasing proportion of the local economy), single parent families with more than 2 children, people with a disability who live alone, in addition to the minimum of a 5 week waiting period and the compulsory online application, which affects everyone.
We will continue to campaign on behalf of all those affected by UC.