An event to mark the tenth anniversary of Universal Credit was held by Policy in Practice and the Centre for Social Justice at the House of Lords. It was a cross-party discussion of the strengths and successes of Universal Credit, as well as the areas it has fallen short of its potential.

The event was hosted by Baroness Ruth Lister and heard remarks from Guy Opperman, Minister for Employment, Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Iain Duncan Smith, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Michelle Birley from the Guinness Partnership brought the voice of the claimant in the room by sharing stories from the frontline.

Left to right: Baroness Ruth Lister, Guy Opperman, Minister for Employment, Jonathan Ashworth, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Michelle Birley from the Guinness Partnership

Different views on Universal Credit’s successes yet common ground on its potential

Whilst there were areas of disagreement between the Conservative and Labour voices on the extent of Universal Credit’s successes, there was considerable common ground in the room.

Universal Credit’s ability to handle the sharp increase in claims during the pandemic was mentioned multiple times both by the speakers and the frontline practitioners in attendance. The £20 per week uplift awarded during the pandemic and the simplification of the claim process in comparison to the legacy system that Universal Credit replaced were also praised.

Iain Duncan Smith stressed the importance of differentiating between Universal Credit as a mechanism for delivering support and the policy that sets the levels of that support. The Universal Credit structure, he said, gives the government the levers to adjust policy more quickly, allowing them to, for example, help people into work by adjusting the work allowance or reducing the earnings taper rate.

Guy Opperman agreed, describing the Universal Credit system as “utterly transformational” and the envy of many countries, highlighting that arguments around the system’s complexity should always consider the legacy system it replaced.

This was echoed by Jonathan Ashworth who said that the Labour Party has supported the principle of unifying the benefits system whilst retaining serious concerns about the adequacy of benefit levels over the years.

The importance of differentiating between Universal Credit policy and Universal Credit as a mechanism to distribute support was emphasised by each of the speakers, all recognising that the potential of Universal Credit had been hampered by austerity policies from 2013 onwards. Iain Duncan Smith underlined this, saying:

Political parties can argue amongst themselves, but the real battle is with the Treasury

Mr Ashworth argued that austerity led to unnecessary complexities being added to the system to save money, such as the benefit cap and the two-child limit. Delegates at the event representing frontline organisations most frequently cited inadequate levels of support as the feature of Universal Credit most in need of change.

However, many of the areas that both Michelle Birley and Baroness Lister identified as needing improvement stem from structural issues rather than direct policy decisions. These include making sure the correct elements are paid on time, ensuring work coaches properly read and understand claimant journals to avoid unnecessary sanctions, and addressing the five week wait for the initial Universal Credit payment.

The importance of understanding how policy decisions affect the structure of the benefits system as a whole was also noted, as inadequate levels of Universal Credit cause a need for additional support mechanisms such as local discretionary schemes and social tariffs to top up incomes and reduce costs. These add complexity to a structure that is aiming for simplicity.

A system that transforms and changes lives

Iain Duncan Smith also spoke of the initial intention behind Universal Credit to be not just a benefit system but “a system that transforms and changes lives.” This involved its implementation alongside a service called Universal Support, which the government has so far not realised, although there were commitments in the most recent budget to provide something similar.

The aim of Universal Support was to identify households most in need of help to re-enter the workforce, working alongside local authorities and charities to provide employment support as well as help with issues such as debt and mental health. Michelle Birley highlighted how this support was already being delivered by frontline organisations, praising the work of “experts who have big hearts who are there to help our customers and the most vulnerable in society”.

Reforming Universal Credit to meet its potential over the next ten years

All five speakers outlined their hopes for Universal Credit in the future. These focused on ensuring adequate benefit levels to provide a decent standard of living, helping vulnerable people into work, and fully realising the promise of a simplified benefit system.

Iain Duncan Smith and Jonathan Ashworth both spoke of the importance of enabling people with health conditions to engage with work, pointing to the current cross-party consensus around reforming the Work Capability Assessment to remove disincentives to try work.

Baroness Lister defined her hope for the future of Universal Credit as providing a stable, decent standard of living that allows claimants to live with dignity.

A report on the adequacy of benefits by the APPG on Poverty, to which Policy in Practice gave evidence, will be published in the coming days, and a similar inquiry by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, to which we also gave evidence, is ongoing. These are likely to show that current benefit levels are far below what is needed for a decent standard of living.

The most apparent consensus in the room was that Universal Credit is a better platform on which to build than the legacy system it replaced. Reforms should use its structure to quickly deliver adequate levels of support, which will necessitate a reversal of austerity policies that have so far put serious limitations on what Universal Credit can be.

In addition, there is still complexity in both the benefits system peripheral to Universal Credit and in the claiming process itself. Policymakers should strive to realise the promise of a simpler system.

A shared birthday

Policy in Practice would like to thank all the speakers and attendees of the event for a spirited discussion and for making the evening a success.

Left to right, Neil Couling, DWP, with Deven Ghelani, Iain Duncan Smith with Jade Alsop and Deven Ghelani, Policy in Practice and Deven Ghelani with Pat Knight, Gravesham Council

The event marked both the tenth anniversary of Universal Credit and Policy in Practice.

We believe that any policy can only be as successful as its implementation – what counts is how policy makes a difference in people’s lives.

Our policy insight powers our award-winning products and services. Over the last decade we have worked with hundreds of local authorities and frontline organisations to help simplify the benefit system and get support to the people who need it the most.

  • Our Better Off Calculator puts £720 million into people’s pockets each year
  • Our LIFT platform helps organisations to target over £250 million of support to individual households

We were delighted to welcome many of our clients from frontline organisations at the event, to celebrate our anniversary with them.

Together, we have spent the first ten years helping people to identify their share of the £19 billion of unclaimed support each year. Join us for the next ten years, when we’ll focus on reducing barriers and friction when people want to make a claim, and ensuring more support goes to the people that need it.

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