Jonathan Reynolds interview: “Universal Credit is predicated on a Victorian attitude to poor people. The very ethos of it is mean"
Jonathan Reynolds says social security has lost political support as people feel there is a "lack of connection between what you pay in and what you get out"
14 min read
With the country heading towards a severe recession, the social security system is facing unprecedented pressure. Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds talks to Georgina Bailey about why he would scrap the “Victorian” Universal Credit system – and replace it with a programme “fit for purpose” in the post-Covid economy
“Any MP who says they don’t wait by their phone when there’s a reshuffle is lying.” Jonathan Reynolds knows the feeling well – he has served three Labour leaders in six different roles during his 10 years in Parliament. In April, Keir Starmer gave him his first promotion to the shadow cabinet, covering the work and pensions brief. “I had been in the media speculation about it, so I was kind of hopeful,” Reynolds tells me from his study in Greater Manchester.
Due to Covid-19, we’re conducting our interview over Zoom. How has it been starting a new job, in a whole new shadow cabinet in the middle of a global pandemic?
He pauses. “It’s been a challenge,” he says, admitting that he feels that he’s been neglecting time with his four children, having to shut himself away to work instead. The nature of his new brief has also bought the reality of the pandemic into sharp focus.
“Anyone in a crisis like this who can work from home from a laptop, who is still getting paid, it is confirmed to you that you’re in a much more privileged position than lots of people. And when you are in the portfolio that covers the labour market and equality of work, this crisis really identifies just how unequal things are with some people having to go into work and some people left on the social security system,” he says.
It is undoubtedly a huge brief – in normal times, the Department for Work and Pensions accounts for around a quarter of Government spending. During the pandemic, Reynolds and his shadow cabinet colleagues have tried to take a constructive approach to Opposition, focusing “on things that could really significantly and realistically be changed quite quickly,” he says, rather than attempting to rewrite the welfare system – although that is the long term goal.
Reynolds does not underestimate the scale of the challenge our social security system is facing. Between 12 March and 9 April, there were 1.5m claims for Universal Credit (UC) – the most claims in a single month since UC was first introduced seven years ago, and over six times more than the same period from 2019. Up to 19 May, the number of total UC applications rose to 2.9 million.
One success for the Government has been the digital by default system, which has held up under the huge increase in applications and meant that those who have access to computers can easily apply. According to the Resolution Foundation, 74% of new UC claimants were very satisfied with the way the DWP handled their claim. However, for those without access to a computer or the internet, applications have been a struggle, particularly as libraries and internet cafés stay closed.
I want a radical Labour, especially on things like child poverty. But I want that to be credible
The Government has also made some benefits more generous during the crisis, including uprating UC and tax credits by £20-a-week, increasing the Local Housing Allowance and suspending the requirement to complete job searches and the related sanctions.
However, the Resolution Foundation also found that a typical employee moving onto UC in the crisis reported a 47% drop in income. For single people, the average loss was 70%. The Food Foundation found that in the first three weeks of lockdown, 1.5 million people reported not eating for a whole day because they couldn’t afford to, and foodbank use doubled.
Reynolds welcomes the initial changes the Government has made. “It is really good, really positive, that the Government themselves began this crisis by saying they’ve got to do more and that the existing social security net was not fit for purpose.” However, he would like to see them go further.
Labour is calling for the £20-a-week increase in UC to continue after the crisis is over, and to also be applied to legacy benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance. As in normal times, they would also like to see the five-week wait period shortened. “I know for a fact there are many Conservatives who agree with that and they’re just reluctant sometimes to break ranks,” Reynolds tells me.
The DWP has said that both the uprating of legacy benefits and shortening the five-week wait is currently not possible due to technological constraints, but Reynolds rejects this out of hand. “Even if there are problems with that, I don’t think it is acceptable to simply say, ‘Computer says no, technically we can’t do this’. We’re talking about thousands of people’s lives.”
Reynolds also thinks that the case for the two-child limit on child benefit has been “destroyed” (“Who would have made choices on family size three years ago, premised on the fact of global pandemic could shut down their workplace and their job?”, he asks), as has the argument for the benefit cap, with people struggling to get more hours or move to cheaper accommodation in the crisis.
The Government has said it doesn’t plan to introduce any further changes. Reynolds believes that this is the result of the Conservatives’ ideological attachment to UC, rather than any technological constraints. “It is a system predicated on a very kind of Victorian attitude to poor people. The ethos of it is mean, it is something almost predicated on the idea that you’ve got to hit people with a stick, to get them back into work.”
Other changes that Reynolds advocates in this period include increasing eligibility for statutory sick pay (SSP), making it available to everyone (currently only those on PAYE systems who earn more than £120 a week are eligible). He would also make SSP more generous than its current £95.85 a week, which he points out is only a fifth of average earnings in the UK, and much less than European offerings. However, he won’t be drawn on how much it should be increased to, as “we don’t yet know how many people would then be affected by this and claiming”. He would also like to see the means-tested element of UC ended, where currently benefits begin to taper if you have more than £6,000 saved, ending completely at £16,000 in savings.
The Children’s Society estimates that over a million people, including over 100,000 children, have Leave to Remain in the UK, but No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), meaning these families cannot access benefits such as UC or child benefits even if they lose their job during the crisis. During Boris Johnson’s appearance in front of the Liaison Committee on 27 May, the prime minister did not appear to know what NRPF was, something Reynolds says he was “really shocked” by.
“I’ve always thought of the Boris Johnson persona as a little bit of an act, that he’s sort of diffident and perhaps not quite as engaged, but to see a prime minister genuinely not understand one of the tenets of his own immigration system, especially when there was an immigration bill going through Parliament that week, I’ve never seen anything like that before. It really made me question how Downing Street works,” Reynolds says. Labour are pushing for NRPF to be scrapped during the crisis, something that Johnson said he’d look at. However, Reynolds hasn’t “got a huge amount of faith, to be honest” that anything will come of it.
How then does Reynolds think the Government should model its welfare approach in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, with the OBR suggesting that unemployment could rise from 3.9% to 10%?
UC is a system designed for high employment, Reynolds says, whereas we will likely see more applicants than vacancies in any recession. He would therefore like to see the DWP take a less punitive approach, with a particular focus on supporting young people.
“All age groups will be affected, but particularly young people get a scarring effect if they’re out of work after a recession,” he says. He would like the Government to consider “direct active measures, perhaps something modelled on the response to the financial crisis in 2008, to make sure there are education and training measures.”
“It’s going to require a very different approach from the Government, and I’m hoping they’ll identify that too, and that the political debate will be about how best we do that. Because if they don’t do that, they’ll be in absolutely the wrong place.”
Born in Tyne and Wear, the 39-year-old is known as Jonny to everyone but his mother, who apparently hates the nickname. “In print and TV, I’m always Jonathan. Every man just wants to make his mum happy”, he clarified on Twitter after his appointment to the shadow cabinet. Reynolds describes his upbringing in Sunderland in the 1980s as “culturally Labour”, but feeling “miles away from Westminster”.
“We didn’t talk about politics that much, but we voted Labour, the whole area did.” It wasn’t until college that Reynolds became more politically aware and joined the party, he says, crediting his “really inspirational politics A-Level teacher” as a “big part of that”. He recalls a trip to meet Chris Mullin, the MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010, in Westminster, where one classmate asked how anyone from Sunderland ended up in Parliament.
“Chris was like, ‘you just get selected and win the election’. It just felt like, you know, something completely alien,” Reynolds says.
“The northeast of England is a really specific part of the country,” he continues. “Those experiences of very significant unemployment in the 1980s in the northeast, and really the sense that the Government didn’t care enough, didn’t do enough, and didn’t really understand what was going on – those were all really strong feelings. But I never intended to become really active in it, I was just a party member.”
He moved to Manchester for university, where Labour gradually started taking over his life, he says. He graduated “very much a Labour activist.” His plans to become a lawyer were delayed by becoming a father just after university, earlier than he had expected. In the meantime, he worked for local MP James Purnell and in 2007 was elected to Tameside council to represent Longdendale, one of the wards in his constituency, starting law school in the same year.
Reynolds says he had no intention to run for Parliament in 2010 until Purnell announced his decision to stand down two months before the election. Stalybridge and Hyde’s selection process made headlines at the time, with reports of Unite trying to stitch up the process for senior official Peter Wheeler. However, Reynolds prevailed. “It was really the chance to become the MP for our area. That was the opportunity, I wouldn’t have stood or even thought about standing for selection anywhere else in that environment,” he explains.
Reynolds identifies very much as a moderate, and previously expressed surprise at being asked to join Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team in 2015 – first as shadow rail minister, and later three and a half years as shadow City minister in the Treasury team, where he worked closely with both Annelise Dodds and Keir Starmer. While Reynolds is full of praise for John McDonnell, who he says was “an excellent manager… he included you in things, and he’s intellectually very confident”, he feels much more ideologically “at home” in a Starmer shadow cabinet.
“I want a radical Labour, especially on things like child poverty and people’s pensions and on the economy… But I want that to be credible,” he explains. “In the City brief we met all kinds of people who were basically centre-left, social democrats or democratic socialist, whatever label you want to use – they were socially liberal. They saw a role for the state, they certainly didn’t want the levels of homelessness we have in the UK or food bank dependency. We have to use those people as allies.”
Reynolds seems fully bought into Starmer’s agenda and the role the work and pensions brief plays in that, particularly in relation to eradicating child poverty.
“At the minute, I see absolutely nothing from the Government that even responds to the fact that we’re heading towards five million children being in poverty,” he says. “And if you incorporate that into the [welfare] system, you have to have a more generous system.”
Starmer pledged in the leadership election to fully replace Universal Credit, which Reynolds has now inherited. “The core problem with Universal Credit is the outcomes it creates everywhere it is rolled out,” he says.
The lack of a connection between what you put in and what you get out has become a major problem of social security and the political support for it
Having only been in the job for two months, Reynolds is understandably still talking in terms of underlying principles rather than detailed policy proposals, but he is clear on what those principles are – and that he thinks “much of the system at present doesn’t work”.
“I want simplicity, I don’t think necessarily Universal Credit does that. We need a system where everyone feels it’s available to them. When people put in, they get the right amount of support out of it. And if you put more in, you get more out of it. But it genuinely is there for everybody. And at the same time gives dignity and respect to people with disabilities who won’t be able to participate in the labour market in the same way,” he says.
“One of the reasons that support for social security has diminished amongst parts of the country is the sense that people put into the system and they don’t get anything out of it. In a way, if you look at eligibility for Universal Credit, people are not wrong. You can make significant contributions to the system and find that actually, you’re not really eligible for any major support if you need it, even in a crisis like this one. I think you’ve got to recognise that that’s a big problem for working people in the UK.”
He adds: “When you’re looking at how you design or change the system going forward, certainly I feel if you have made greater contributions to the system, there is an argument that you should receive more out of that system. It doesn’t mean that you will ever be leaving people without support or leaving them destitute. But I simply feel that that lack of a connection between what you put in and what you get out has become a major problem of social security and the political support for it.”
In the past, Reynolds has expressed his support for universal basic income, however he doesn’t think that full UBI is currently a runner. “I’m not ruling anything out. I want to listen to all submissions,” Reynolds says, adding that Labour will also be looking at different “exciting” models of welfare across the world to inform their thinking. He also sees the merits of some elements of UC, such as the journal system and the emphasis on building digital skills.
Another core principle for Reynolds is dignity for disabled people in the welfare system, focusing on unlocking support rather than a punitive approach. He highlights the number of work capability assessments that are overturned at tribunal. “No one should be satisfied with it,” he asserts.
“I don’t have the answer to this yet, but there’s clearly a challenge around having a work capability assessment or some form of device that is the gateway to eligibility for disability benefits which treats people with respect because they don’t feel that’s what’s happening at the minute.
“There is a demand from some quarters for more medical expertise going into that which I can understand, people can have medical conditions and still not then find the system is supportive of them. And yet, at the same time, we don’t want to medicalise disability, because clearly people are affected in different ways by different conditions. And they, quite rightly, are individuals with their own aspirations for how they want to work.”
Whatever solutions Reynolds and Labour come up with, he sees the Covid-19 crisis as a chance to re-engage the public on welfare policy and re-set the dominant thinking of the last 10 years.
“There’s now a big group of people who weren’t interested in this area of policy and now are because they’ve had some experience of the system. Let’s use that newfound interest to come up with a system that really is fit for purpose,” he says.
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