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Universal credit system will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back

August 8th, 2012 by Mike Barrett

The country’s understandable pride at hosting what is turning out to be a truly memorable Olympic games is a welcome interlude in what is a traumatic time for the poor, homeless, unemployed and those struggling with mental health issues and substance dependency.

What is very worrying however is the apparent refusal of those in power to accept the stark warnings of the housing and charity sectors about the inevitable negative consequences of parts of the universal credit system being introduced next year.

“Before the money ran out there was much more in the way of joint working…”

Our sector has bags of skill, commitment and drive, but politicians struggling with meeting the demands of their responsibilities are taking away the low level of resources we have. The obvious question for me is this; if a nation like ours can commit to and produce a fantastic spectacle by raising some £9 billion, could we not put our efforts, skills and that enterprising spirit to doing something similar about ending homelessness? “Silly naive man” I hear you say, but why not? Before the money ran out there was much more in the way of joint working with both local and central government, but now it seems that we are a bit of an embarrassment always asking for funds.

That’s not necessarily the truth though is it? Yes we need a level of funding that will support the difficult job we have to do, but that doesn’t mean we can be ignored. More importantly, the people that need and use our services cannot be ignored. I learnt the lesson many years ago that to remain credible as a sector, those in power must be told the truth even when the truth becomes an irritation and doesn’t fit with the “plan”. We cannot sit idly by and ignore the obvious catastrophe that parts of the universal credit regime will bring to the young and vulnerable.

“In the South East of England, many people are under extreme pressure to pay their rent, mortgages, utility bills and feed their families…”

The current system for claiming benefits is extremely complex. The government has said that one of the drivers for the introduction of these changes is to simplify the system, but this does not simplify the individual circumstances of those claiming their entitlement. It appears at times that there is a contradiction between the policy makers’ intent on getting to grips with “troubled families” and yet devising a benefit system that will deprive many of the people that are being targeted as problems. Of course there is much work needed to get people off benefits and back to work, but the rhetoric would suggest that everyone claiming benefits is a member of the “feckless club.” This is simply not the case and very far from the reality of the situation. In the South East of England, many people are under extreme pressure to pay their rent, mortgages, utility bills and feed their families because they are in low paid, part time employment. Nevertheless they maintain their dignity, hide their pain and carry on.

“…struggling families whose younger members are tomorrow’s homeless and rough sleepers.”

My fear is the universal credit system will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. The camels in this case, are struggling families whose younger members are tomorrow’s homeless and rough sleepers. The Guardian Society pages have even gone as far as to say “As far as welfare reform policy goes, universal credit is sheer lunacy, and any creaks in the system could lead to anyone feeling the axe, intended or not.”

The recent Crisis response to the Social Security Advisory Committee consultation puts these fears into stark contrast with other parts of the government’s social policy agenda. Let us hope that someone will get the message and understand the consequences of this particular policy on the future of many thousands of very vulnerable people.

About the writer

Mike joined the charity as Chief Executive in 1999. He has worked in housing and social care for nearly 30 years within local authorities, a national supported housing association and the charity sector. Mike is a professionally qualified member of the Chartered Institute of Housing, a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and a member of the UK Housing Panel. He is heavily involved in the supported housing and homelessness sectors regionally. Mike is also a member of Homeless Link's National Advisory Council which meets to discuss the impact of government policy on homelessness.

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