It’s somewhat bizarre that a report issued by sombre accountants can cause people to sit up and take notice of a massive injustice being hidden in plain sight,  when people who are living with the suffering and fear that it causes, struggle to have their voices listened to. 

Last week the National Audit Office published an excoriating report on Universal Credit and its roll out to date. Among the headline grabbing lines were the following

“it cannot prove it helps more claimants into work”...“it may end up costing more than the benefit system it replaces” ...“it is not value for money now and its future value for money is unproven”

This, after £1.9billion of public money has been spent on its introduction and roll out, and with only 10% of all claimants moved across to Universal Credit to date. The report received significant media coverage, with The Guardian newspaper editorial dubbing Universal Credit a ‘cruel, expensive fiasco’ .

In turn, the Department of Work and Pensions’ response to the National Audit Office’s report calls to mind the lyrics of a Pete Seeger song ‘waist deep in the big muddy and the damn fool keeps yelling push on!’ Its insistence that Universal Credit is ‘on track’...would seem to be in much the same way that a runaway train is on track, barrelling its way through community after community, with nobody in authority shouting stop. Its cabooses have now buckled and leapt across the Irish Sea, bringing untold misery to communities here. Universal Credit is being rolled out across the north, starting in Limavady in September 2017 and ending up in Ballymena in December 2018.

While it may have delivered a fairly devastating financial assessment of Universal Credit, the National Audit Office’s report is short on solutions, very short. In fact, it adopts an entirely fatalistic view, which can be summed up as TINA – There Is No Alternative. Its recommendations, welcome as they may be, are limited to greater transparency and tracking, improvement in operational performance and costs, greater working with delivery partners to collect, analyse and publish data and evidence as well as improving ways in which third parties can support claimants.

These recommendations must be viewed, not through the lens of civil servants focused on improving the efficiency and cost of Universal Credit, but through the eyes of those millions of people being impacted by it. These are the voices that must be listened to by our politicians, by the Department for Communities and by the head of the NI Civil Service in the continued absence of an Executive and Assembly.

There is no question but that the inhumane treatment of vulnerable claimants in Scotland, England and Wales, extensively documented, is now being replicated in the north of Ireland. The Right to Work (R2W) campaign group recently spent several months surveying people who are unemployed, sick or disabled and who are dependent on the safety net that our social security system was originally intended to provide. They talked to people outside dole offices, outside DLA/PIP and ESA assessment centres and Steps 2 Success centres run by private companies. Their testimonies point to the human cost of Universal Credit:

there is no empathy and understanding, medical opinions and evidence are not taken seriously”...“It’s a joke you have to beg for what you need”...“they use threatening tactics to take our money”...“tests, stress, worry, high blood pressure”.

The common thread running conversations R2W activists had with people was a feeling of fear – fear of the brown envelope landing on their mat,  fear of having their last pennies taken off them, fear of ‘not being sick enough’. Fear, coupled with humiliation, as people are forced to endure degrading and humiliating ‘assessments’ to ‘prove’ that they are in fact genuine claimants.

Increasingly, staff working for private companies such as Capita or ATOS, who have been given extremely lucrative contracts by our Department for Communities, are refusing to participate in this ‘conscious cruelty’ and are coming forward to shine a light on what they have witnessed from the other side of the desk. One whistleblower working in England described the level of suffering he saw as a Case Manager ‘I see masses of suffering on a daily basis... We have to tell claimants that the state cannot support them even if they have young children to feed... Turning away those in abject poverty is part of the job”. He added   “ It is often that we have to tell claimants that the state cannot support them further at all – even if they have weeks till their next payment and have young children to feed.”

All the evidence then already exists as to the damage being caused by Universal Credit.  Returning to the question of solutions, there is already a solution sitting on the desk of Leo O’Reilly, the Permanent Secretary for Department for Communities. The R2W group, a group of unemployed, sick and disabled people and their supporters, which has campaigned against benefit sanctions, for human rights protections and for real job creation through the use of public money, has developed a workable solution called the People’s Proposal. It requires the introduction of due process and mandatory impact assessment into social security decision making, in the form of a human rights checklist.  Its implementation would ensure that vulnerable people are afforded human rights protections in all decisions affecting their benefits.  

The People’s Proposal commands huge political and civic support. To date 8 out of the 11 district councils have passed motions calling for Leo O’Reilly to implement it. All political parties, with the exception of the DUP support it; major trade union bodies including NIC-ICTU, and NIPSA, the union that represents social security staff, support it, as do many organisations working within the community and voluntary and advice sectors.

It has been sitting on Leo O’Reilly’s desk since June 2017 – to date he has refused to implement it, despite having the power to do so.  Meanwhile, the Scottish Executive has taken some initial steps in the right direction, including the removal of social security related contracts from private companies.

As the Universal Credit train hurtles through our quiet towns and villages, all it is leaving in its wake is pain, misery, desperation and more and more food banks.

We need those who can to raise their voices louder to shout stop. The burden of doing this must not rest on the shoulders of those least able to carry it. Take action today to help R2W in their campaign for a human rights based social security system.

Email Leo O’Reilly and call for the implementation of the #PeoplesProposal human rights checklist

Find out more/get involved – email Sean Brady tel 028 90 313315

Read the R2W campaign’s latest newsletter via this link