Why is Universal Credit sanctioning three times more people than its predecessor?

The system pioneered by the Tories is either broken or was set up to punish those most in need of state support.

Figures suggest three times more people are being sanctioned under Universal Credit than the now defunct Job Seeker’s Allowance. Mistake or intentional Tory policy to punish welfare claimants? Social worker Nye Jones looks for an answer.

In the Budget last week, Philip Hammond announced the government would be reforming Universal Credit (UC). Waiting times for new claimants will drop from 6 to 5 weeks.

It’s hardly the climbdown critics of the policy had hoped for. The brutal regime of Universal Credit, which is causing people across the country to lose their homes and go hungry, goes on, albeit in a slightly diluted form.

Why do the Tories insist on continuing the rollout of this failing and regressive reform? In the words of the revolutionary economist Amartya Sen, “Benefits, meant especially for the poor, often end up being poor benefits”.

By making the whole process of receiving welfare difficult and labyrinthine – which Universal Credit certainly is – it is no longer seen as a right.

No longer a right, measly state handouts come to be seen as contingent on people’s behaviour – painting poverty as a result of poor decisions rather than political choices. Universal Credit intensifies this approach.

A recent report stated that claimants are three times more likely to be sanctioned on UC than it’s predecessor Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

With no evidence that sanctions achieve the supposed goal of pushing people back into work, they appear an arbitrary punishment to benefits claimants – an ideological weapon in the Tories’ war against welfare.

Indeed, evidence shows that UC sanctions disproportionately affect those most in need of state support: the homeless.

A report by Homeless-Link found that 31% of homeless people claiming JSA have been sanctioned compared with just 3% overall.

Whether the intention of the Tories or not, the UC system punishes those most in need of support.

As Guy Standing, Professor of Development Studies at SOAS, argues targeted social security policies, such as UC, allow politicians to penalise anyone they class as ‘undeserving poor’ – this is what UC does to homeless people.

At the same time, benefits which are available to a wider cross section of society – those deemed deserving – tend to be more generous.

A report on The Historical Rates of Social Security Benefits by the House of Commons shows that Child Benefit, eligible for those earning £50,000 and below, has actually increased as a proportion of average earnings since 1990.

At the same time, more targeted benefits such as JSA and it’s disability equivalent Employment Support Allowance, have been reduced.

Accepting a reformed version of UC only serves to legitimise the view that individual behaviour is the root cause of poverty and hardship, blocking debates around systemic change. Welfare should be universal by nature rather than in name only.

Nye Jones is a freelance writer and social worker. He tweets here.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.