Universal Credit Hits Bath

The local news for this part of the West Country, BBC Points West, last night covered the introduction of Universal Credit in Bath. The programme mentioned that the system was several months over time and over budget. They interviewed a few people going into one of the city’s Jobcentres about how complicated the present system was. They replied with statements like it was a nightmare, and ‘Oh, don’t go there.’ They also briefly interviewed David Freud, the minister from the government, who was there to talk up the scheme, how it was more efficient, and less confusing and wasteful than the earlier system. Also present was a local businessman, Chris Smith, who declared that this was going to be good for business and employers. He stated that he had tried to recruit new staff many times, who told him that they’d like to work for him, but could not work more than 16 hours a week. He stated that it would be good if this were removed, and he and others like him could ‘grow a business’. The report also stated that the policy had the backing of all three major parties.

So that’s all right then, as Private Eye says whenever someone in authority issues a flimsy excuse for shoddy behaviour and double standards.

The only criticism of Universal Credit was that it was over time and over budget. I can think of a number of other criticisms, the least of which are these.

Firstly, the benefits system is complicated for a very good reason: different kinds of people need very different kinds of help, and this does not appear to have changed by trying to consolidate all the different types of benefit into one. Mike over at Vox Political has blogged and rebloggged pieces about how immensely complicated and confusing Universal Credit is, because of the sheer necessity of dealing with different people’s needs.

Secondly, any benefits to claimants under the new system simply won’t be a consideration. The government’s policy towards the unemployed is that they should be humiliated and pressured into seeking work, even if this is unavailable. Every opportunity should be taken to throw them off benefits, even if they have no other source of income. In the case of those sanctioned by Atos, this may have resulted in the deaths of 38,000 per year.

The choice of David Freud as the responsible minister to open the system in the city demonstrates this attitude very clearly. Freud is a former New Labour MP, who crossed the floor to join the Conservatives. Like the rest of the government front bench, he is a terrible toff, who doesn’t understand the poor and treats them with utter contempt. This is the man, who said that the poor should be more flexible than millionaires, as they have less to lose.

As for Chris Smith, his endorsement of the system suggests that he doesn’t wish to recruit his workers by giving them a fair day’s wage for their labours, but by recruiting the poor and desperate, forced to find work through further cuts to their benefits. And note: his comments show clearly that he is not recruiting full time staff. He has said he feels the changes to the benefits system will allow companies like his to grow by allowing workers on benefits to work more hours than the maximum of 16 to which they are currently limited. So he doesn’t want to give them full-time work, or solve his problem by employing more part-time workers to do the hours the others cannot. He seems simply to want to grow his business by extending the working hours of those he already has. Which suggests that he sees those on benefits as a supply of cheap labour to be exploited.

As for Universal Credit being backed by all three main parties, this unfortunately shows the increasing homogeneity and crushing lack of ideas of the main political parties. All of them have swallowed the Neo-Liberal Kool-Aid, and show precious little understanding for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. David Milliband, for example, has stated that he wishes the Labour party to reach out to the middle classes. I’ve no problem with that in theory, but in practice it has meant that the working class and the unemployed are being sidelined so that Milliband and his predecessors in New Labour can present the party as economically orthodox, with a harsh line on the unemployed.

This, unfortunately, is part of the reason for the resistible rise of UKIP. There’s a piece over on Guy Debord’s Cat that shows that most UKIP supporters are actually left-wing, almost as left as the Labour party. UKIP itself is, however, so far to the right that it has been declared BNP-lite. Indeed, Private Eye reported several years ago how Farage and Fuehrer Nick Griffin were seen having lunch together. Presumably they were discussing the bankruptcy of multi-party democracy and the constraints on national sovereignty of a corrupt international order, though not necessarily with reference to the Weimar Republic. Nevertheless, UKIP presents itself as radically different from the other three parties and is deliberately aiming to recruit those working class voters, who believe that Labour has abandoned them. Labour could easily parry this threat by moving back to the Left and defending the unemployed, the poor, the disabled. This would, however, mean challenging and scrapping much of the heritage of New Labour, which it clearly is reluctant to do.

As for Bath and Universal Credit, the City’s a Liberal/ Conservative seat. They have, after all, returned Jacob Rees-Mogg, the son of William Rees-Mogg, as their MP. Bath is a beautiful city, but it’s like Cheltenham in that beneath the great wealth there’s a deprived underclass that lives cheek by jowl with its wealthier neighbours. Back in the 1990s it used to be on the route for the New Age travellers going to Glastonbury. It’s also an expensive city. Those on modest incomes can find it very difficult to find suitable accommodation. So while it’s almost inevitable that Universal Credit would rolled out there, it’s arrival will only cause more poverty and hardship to the city’s sizable poor population. But as they’re invisible to the crowds of tourists flooding the city for the Roman Baths, the Pump Room and the architecture for the city of Jane Austen’s novels, they’ll continue to be ignored by the politicos.

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