1) The problem. Fundamentally, the issue is that there are a lot of people stuck on out-of-work benefits: around 5 million at the last count. This means different things for different groups. For the Treasury and taxpayers it contributes towards an unwieldy working-age welfare budget that has increased by 45 percent, in real terms, over the past decade – to around £80 billion. For Downing Street's strategists it throws up all sorts tricky questions about fairness, immigration and jobs. And for the benefit claimants themselves it can result in lives stripped of opportunity, achievement and wealth. Some 1.4 million of the 5 million have been on benefits for 9 out of the past 10 years. Over the same period, the number of families in severe poverty has increased.
Iain Duncan Smith's main explanation for this is that the system has incentivised people to remain on benefits, rather than finding work. The proliferation and growth of out-of-work benefits has made some claimants better off than they would be in a low-earning job. Even where they might be better off in work – and that actually applies in most cases – the Byzantine complexity of the benefits system certainly doesn't make this obvious. It all comes down to what's called the Marginal Deduction Rate: the rate at which benefits are withdrawn and taxes imposed as a claimant enters work. For some, as David Cameron highlighted in his 2009 conference speech, this can hit 96 percent – meaning they effectively lose 96p of every extra pound earned; a massive disincentive. Here's the relevant graph from the White Paper:
The beauty of this is its simplicity. Reducing the number of benefits not only reduces the confusion for claimants, but it also smoothes out the disincentives against working. No longer would someone entering work face extreme Marginal Deduction Rates, as different benefits are withdrawn at different junctures. Instead, the Universal Credit would be withdrawn at a steady rate of 65 percent. As the White Paper explains, this would mean that "the highest Marginal Deduction Rate for low-earning workers would be reduced from around 96 per cent to 65 per cent for those earning below the personal tax threshold, and to around 76 per cent for basic rate taxpayers." Here's a graph showing what would happen for that lone parent with two children highlighted above (as you'll see, the basic objective is "making work pay"):
3) Will there be losers? One of the sticking points with the Universal Credit – as it was originally described in the Centre for Social Justice report Dynamic Benefits – was that two groups would "lose a small amount" because of the reform. The idea of creating losers is anathema to many politicians, as James Purnell suggested in his recent account of trying to persuade Gordon Brown to reform benefits.
The White Paper appears to go out of its way to avoid this problem. One passages relates that:
"No-one will experience a reduction in the benefit they are receiving as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit. At the point of transition onto the new system, those households whose circumstances remain unchanged and who would otherwise experience a reduction in income will receive cash protection."
Incidentally, this is – by any IFS style account – a "progressive" distribution.
4) Simplicity means improved take-up. The benefits and tax credits that will fall under the banner of the Universal Credit are currently administered by the separate bureaucracies: the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury and HM Revenue & Customs. The Universal Credit will bring them all under the control of the DWP. Not only does this simplify the process in Whitehall, but it also reduces the number of forms and agencies that claimants have to deal with. At the same time, the DWP will move develop "full online services" for claimants, including a new online account "through which they will be able to access information about their claim and Universal Credit payments". It is hoped that this friendlier, more intuitive system will improve the take-up of benefits, and clarify the incentives to work.
5) Conditionality and sanctions. The government is already strengthening the conditionality and sanctions system for the current benefits system (albeit by longstanding principles which are easier said than abided by), and much of this will carry across to the Universal Credit. There will be four levels of conditionality under the Universal Credit: from full conditionality ("recipients in this group will be subject to the same requirements to actively seek work and to be available for work as they would under Jobseeker’s Allowance) to no conditionality (for claimants who have a "serious health condition which prevents from working and preparing for work," etc.). The sanctions that will be imposed on those who fail to meet their obligations are suggested by this table:
7) Timeline. The White Paper puts it like this:
"The Government intends to introduce a Welfare Reform Bill in January 2011 to give effect to these changes. We will then adopt a phased approach to the introduction of Universal Credit with the first individuals expected to enter the new system from 2013, followed by the gradual closure of existing benefits and Tax Credits claims and their transfer to the new system."
8) The outcome. The White Paper pins some numbers on what it hopes will be achieved with the Universal Credit. Here's the key passage:
"The Universal Credits scheme is a cost-effective way of greatly increasing household employment and tackling poverty and child poverty. A total of 4.9 million households with low-earning workers would see their incomes rise by an average of £1,000 per year. By careful design we can minimise the number of low earners who lose out. 600,000 previously workless households would enter employment, and the national income (GDP) would increase by £4.7 billion. Consequently, 829,000 households – including 210,000 children – would move above the poverty threshold."
9) Delivery. Yesterday, the Times reported (£) that the introduction of the Universal Credit could be scuppered by the wait for a new Treasury computer system, expected in April 2014. Department of Work and Pensions officials tell me, though, that this shouldn't be a problem – as the Universal Credit doesn't require the full computer system at first; it only requires the PAYE details that employers should have sent to the Treasury, in preparation for the new system, some time before. It will still be worth keeping a sceptical eye on the new computer systems at both the Treasury and the DWP, though. Whitehall doesn't have a great track record when it comes to delivering IT projects on time and on budget.
10) Going further? The obvious candidate for change is the withdrawal rate of the Universal Credit. The White Paper says that a rate of 65 percent "would deliver sufficient work incentives whilst also being affordable" – but a lower withdrawal rate would further improve the incentives to work. The original Centre for Social Justice report proposed a 55 percent rate, which would cost around £1 billion extra. Something, perhaps, for George Osborne to consider should any cash flow unexpectedly into the coffers around the next election.