We should rip welfare policy out of the hands of a failing Westminster
Today’s announcement on Universal Credit is one more example of welfare policy set to serve the interests of the politically powerful rather than the unemployed and the economy.
What is the point of the Government’s announcement that it will now require Universal Credit claimants to seek work outside their chosen sector after one month of unemployment rather than three in order to avoid sanctions? It can’t be to get people into work or address the labour shortage because there is strong evidence that it will achieve neither of those things.
Maybe it’s to save money, but once again the evidence suggests that welfare sanctions cost more than they save and that’s before one considers the extra pressure placed on NHS, police and social care services who have to deal with the fallout of the greater poverty and stress sanctions cause.
It’s difficult not to conclude, therefore, that the announcement is simply part of Operation Red Meat, the plan to rapidly launch a bunch of right-wing policies to stem opposition from Conservative Party MPs and members to Boris Johnson’s premiership.
So let’s be honest about this. This announcement is bad, evidence-free policy that risks further suffering for tens of thousands of communities and families already struggling with the consequences of Covid, rising prices, unemployment and a cut in Universal Credit itself in order to save the job of one very powerful individual.
Rightly, it is already being condemned in those terms. But we should also be appalled by the context that allows such a poor and harmful decision to be made.
It is shameful our system is so centralised that a policy can be suddenly launched that takes no account of the widely diverse experience of the labour market for different communities and families solely to serve political expediency in Westminster.
It is yet another example of welfare policy that has for too long been shaped by an unholy trinity of prejudice against benefit claimants, tabloid willingness to exploit that prejudice to sell papers and generate clicks, and a national political elite lacking the vision or courage to do anything other than play to both the prejudice and the press.
It is possible, however, to imagine another world where welfare policy is set very differently.
One where it is flexible enough to take account of vast local differences, humane enough not to push communities and families into poverty and crisis and rational and joined-up enough to actually help people back into decent work.
This is a system where the major decisions about welfare policy are taken locally as part of a wider local strategy on jobs, skills and economic development.
One where that strategy is not set by politicians alone but by deliberative, consensual bodies of local citizens who get to hear expert testimony, listen to the lived experience of those seeking employment and those offering it, understand budgetary constraints and have the freedom to develop an approach devoid of any pressure from newspaper editors or backbenchers.
In essence it is a community-powered approach to making the major decisions that affect millions of people’s lives.
It should be applied, of course, to the wide range of policy areas currently banjaxed by Westminster dysfunction.
But I can imagine few more important areas than welfare especially for those marginalised communities that have been ill-served for decades by that central London bubble.
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