Universal Catastrophe – the ongoing crisis that is Universal Credit and welfare ‘conditionality’

Universal Catastrophe – the ongoing crisis that is Universal Credit and welfare ‘conditionality’

Christian Garland

The 40 year project of ‘welfare reform’ or ‘active labour market policies’ that can be viewed as central to neoliberalism has ‘conditionality’ in-built to its re-purposing of the welfare state. ‘Conditionality’, as the term befits, is the ideological demand that any help from the state should be contingent upon compliance with its demands. The most recent iteration, Universal Credit, however, is unique in its punitive severity.

Unlike previous examples of ‘welfare reform’ or ‘welfare-to-work’, Universal Credit targets those in work. It is meant to replace six means-tested benefits: income-based Employment Support Allowance (ESA) Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Income Support, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credits, and Child Tax Credits, and makes claimants wait three to  five weeks before they are paid the supplements to wages that the state defines as sufficient for ‘subsistence’. The Department for Work & Pensions’ (DWP) feed on Twitter makes the misleading claim that “up to 100% advances are available”, which is not the case. Up to 100% debt is available, since benefit payments are made as a loan that is re-payable as the price paid for actually needing it now and not in 3-5 weeks time.

Moreover, were a claimant to receive 100% of their withheld social entitlement they would be due nothing at all when the payment finally comes through, but would have 100% of it owed as debt. This deliberate withholding of social entitlements turning them into a re-payable loan, is one of the cornerstones of ‘conditionality’ as embedded in Universal Credit. The other is the obligation of claimants to ‘agree to’ a ‘Claimant Commitment’ over which they have no choice in signing; it must be signed if they are to receive anything at all. Effectively, this amounts to an agreement that whatever the Job Centre decides, or demands, is underwritten by ‘sanctions’, where benefits can be stopped for perceived non-compliance.

The University of York’s five year Welfare Conditionality study analysing the effectiveness, impact and ethics of welfare conditionality from 2013-2018 found it to be “largely ineffective and in some cases pushes people into poverty and crime. However the DWP remains impervious to criticism. Instead it repeats its glib claim on a feedback loop of Universal Credit – and by definition ‘conditionality’ – amounting to people being “always better off in work”, ignoring the fact that very many of those claiming it are employed, but in work paying so poorly, or yielding so few hours, that they have to apply for what amounts to a de facto wage supplement.

The DWP displays its unrealistic thinking in the selective use and presentation of data of ‘record numbers’ in employment. Since 2010 record numbers have been ‘re-classified’ as ‘in employment’. This includes zero-hours contracts of as little as one hour every two weeks being  deemed ‘full-time’. It also includes workfare in all its variants of ‘work-related activity’ and bogus ‘self-employment’ of one kind or another. Such ideological presentation of data is used to try to bolster the embattled project of Universal Credit and its ‘conditionality’.

Similarly, DWP claims Universal Credit ‘boosts employment’ have been countered by Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO) in a recent report:

“We think the larger claims for universal credit, such as boosted employment, are unlikely to be demonstrable at any point in future. Nor for that matter will it be value for money.”

The NAO report findings were that Universal Credit wherever it exists, causes hardship if not destitution and does not save money or boost employment. However, the DWP continues to ignore to all evidence that there is or could be any correlation between poverty, homelessness, and destitution and ‘conditionality’, sanctions or Universal Credit.

This has all led the DWP to spend £225,458 in a ten week advertising campaign promoting Universal Credit claiming to be “Myth Busting”. The campaign is currently under investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for its disingenuous and misleading claims. The cynicism on display faced criticism from Work & Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field in October 2018 when he noted the DWP’s advertising campaign and promotion on social media for Universal Credit “plays people for fools” in its claims to ‘mirror the world of work’ by paying benefits monthly.

Frank Field noted in July,“If the DWP wants to understand the facts about Universal Credit, it could look to the horrific, harrowing evidence we heard this morning. Instead of going out to get the evidence for itself, the DWP just dismisses this testimony as anecdote and brushes it aside. Rather than wasting huge chunks of desperately needed resources on 10 weeks of advertorial, why won’t the Government just take a look at the terrible reality of the facts we and so many others are showing them, for free?”

He went on, “These so-called “facts” about Universal Credit are nothing of the kind. Large numbers of low-paid workers are not paid monthly. And no one has their wages paid to their partner.” Universal Credit pays the claimant up to five weeks after the claim is made and to ‘the head of the household’.

The ‘family values’ ideology underlying Universal Credit is also rightly debunked in Field’s comments.

The straightforward evidential correlation with the geometric increase in food banks across the UK can indeed be made with ‘conditionality’ and the sanctions regime and disciplinary policies like Universal Credit which view unemployment and low pay not as a social problem but as an individual moral failing.

A manifest policy failure, the DWP has also called on the tried and tested neoliberal reflex of ‘outsourcing’ functions of the state to either private contractors or the voluntary sector. In the autumn of 2018 it announced several big voluntary sector organisations including – surprisingly, or perhaps not – the Citizen’s Advice Bureau which signed a £51 million contract for outsourced facilitation for ‘advice’ in implementing Universal Credit. Greater Manchester Law Centre however begged to differ,

“our response was clear: the government cannot rely on the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces. For example, if Universal Credit is so convoluted and ineffective that those implementing it ask charities for help, then it should not have been implemented at all. Our role is to publicly challenge the injustices of this government’s welfare regime.”

Universal Credit puts people into crisis wherever it exists in the country. What is so disastrous is the idea that it is possible to compel and coerce those who already have jobs, but which do not pay enough with – not so – veiled threats and impossible demands for compliance setting people up to fail as the price they have to pay for their Job Centre wage supplement.


Christian Garland teaches precariously at Queen Mary, University of London and has degrees in Philosophy and Politics from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex. He has research interests including Marx and Frankfurt School Critical Theory especially applying this to the rapidly changing nature of work and how this can be said to embody social relations of atomization and individualization: the re-composition and restructuring of the Capital-labour relation itself.