Frank Field: Our inquiry revealed the human cost of Universal Credit - but the response from ministers has been appalling
The Government has ploughed ahead with massive, often untried reforms, making huge budget savings on the backs of the poorest, without ever stopping to find out if they actually work or can justify their external financial, or human, costs, says Frank Field MP.
The way childcare payments are designed and administered under Universal Credit is stopping parents from working.
That was the thrust of our December 2018 report on “support for childcare” under Universal Credit.
On the back of our report, the BBC summed up the reality facing parents trying to get into or back into work as: “Get in debt or turn down job? Universal Credit's 'stark choice'”. The Daily Mail, too, declared “Universal Credit is 'making it harder for parents to get back into work' as thousands are waiting months to receive childcare repayments”.
During that inquiry, into a topic which forms a central part of the Government’s welfare-to-work agenda, Save the Children introduced us to Thuto Mali.
Along with three other single mums, Thuto found childcare to come to Parliament on a Wednesday morning in October last year.
She gave the Committee powerful testimony of the well-paid job - and route back into her career - she’d had to turn down simply because Universal Credit could not and would not foot the first month of upfront costs of childcare.
Instead, she’d had to turn to a food bank with her young son – it is an alarming sign, in one sense, that food bank co-ordinator Trussell Trust has become a valuable contributor to multiple strands of our inquiries into Universal Credit, as have so many other voluntary organisations who have stepped into the breach as so called “welfare” reforms actually unravel our social safety net.
The same thanks for the valuable evidence that helps us build towards our report conclusions cannot, unfortunately, be offered to DWP.
We’ve had to wring sparse information about the impacts of Universal Credit - on employment, on incomes, on hunger, on debt, on homelessness, on families’ lives - out of them, or had to demand they start collecting it.
We’ve also had to point out repeatedly the results of their patchy evidence collection: people left with nothing because their incomes have been “reformed”, frozen, cut, sanctioned and capped below a liveable level.
The Government has ploughed ahead with massive, often untried reforms, making huge budget savings on the backs of the poorest, without ever stopping to find out if they actually work or can justify their external financial, or human, costs.
And so: back to parents, working or trying to. The upfront-to-provider repayment model that wrecked Thuto’s aspirations and the childcare provider invoicing system, are just two of the fundamental flaws of just this one element of Universal Credit.
In report after report since local authorities raised the alarm with us around homelessness and destitution two years ago, we’ve been using evidence to show how Universal Credit’s design, structural and administrative flaws undermine the Government’s stated objectives in every area,.
And yet, incredibly, after the contribution of so many people to this inquiry, we’ve been handed an appalling response by the DWP. Dismissive and disrespectful, and so contemptuously failing to engage with any of the evidence-based conclusions of our evidence-led inquiry, we aren’t convinced they’ve even read it.
It is one thing to give a reasoned justification for refusing a Committee recommendation - made, after all, with the explicit aim of improving Government policy. But this response, like an unacceptable number before it, totally failed to do so.
Beyond the insult, treating us and expert stakeholders like dirt, what signal does it send about participation in our select committee system? This year marks the 40thanniversary of this most accessible part of public, national scrutiny of Government. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the Government apparently does not want to encourage it. But it should worry us and, with this exceptional report, we are signalling that we will not accept it.
Frank Field is the Independent MP for Birkenhead.