It only dawned on me in late summer just how terrible our new benefits system, universal credit, might be both for the poor souls who depend on it and for the bedraggled Conservative party.
An old friend, Terry, alerted me to the depth of the problem. Terry is 70-odd and has learning difficulties, though he’s astute in many ways and quite startlingly kind. He has a room in a shared house, but like many in precarious or temporary housing, he’s a regular on the homeless scene: part of a growing drift of men and women who move around London morning till night, from the St Martin-in-the-Fields day centre to the Hare Krishna food vans in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Here’s a measure of Terry’s generosity: in 2008 he decided not to collect his pension so as to help alleviate our national debt. We’ve all got to do our bit, he said, then it’ll add up. When I bumped into him this summer he mentioned that he was on his uppers, lending his pension every month to desperate friends.
Why? Because, he said, of universal credit. Terry has pals in Hammersmith and Fulham, one of the first London councils to adopt the UC system. Built into the design of universal credit is a new six-week wait for payment, which is made in arrears. In practice though, Terry told me, the wait can be even longer. Terry’s friends aren’t scroungers but they are vulnerable, often not employable. They don’t have savings and so six weeks without cash can be catastrophic. Terry tides them over as best he can.
Last Wednesday, the Work and Pensions Committee heard evidence from Secretary of State David Gauke on the subject of universal credit and this six-week wait. The implacable Gauke dug in his toes. He insisted that ‘customers’ received an acceptable level of service, and that it was safe to accelerate the nationwide rollout of universal credit due for the coming year.