Alongside the Secretary of State’s rare appearances in the media this week, the DWP released a gushing report claiming that Universal Credit was already a huge success. This document was based on cherry-picked information from two recent evaluations of the pilot scheme currently running in the North West of England which looked at the impact of the roll out of Universal Credit.
The truth is that there is really nothing useful that can really be learned from how Universal Credit (UC) will work across the board from the tiny amount of data so far available. Only around 50,000 people have claimed UC so far, and there were far fewer than that when these evaluations were carried out. More importantly, they are based on new claims only from single unemployed people with no significant health conditions.
One of these evaluations was a survey which compared the views of 900 people who had claimed UC against the same number of claimants on mainstream Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). In the DWP’s gushing summary of the evidence they declare that Universal Credit claimants were more likely to believe the benefits system is encouraging them to find work and that they were spending more time looking for work. The DWP also claim huge support for the Claimant Commitment, the agreement unemployed people are now forced to sign which contains a list of largely pointless activities which people must carry out as part of their jobsearch.
As the table above shows, most claimants did believe that ‘some’ of the activities in their Claimant Commitment would help them find work. But that’s just fucking obvious. If it says in a Claimant Commitment that you must look for a job, then you are more likely to find work than if you don’t look for a job. What is important is how the Claimant Commitment is viewed as a whole. What the survey then shows it that 55% of people appear to have thought that some or all of the measures in the agreement were a waste of time, 59% of claimants thought that some or all of the measures did not take into account their personal circumstances and 46% of claimants thought that some or all of these actions were unachievable. Disturbingly almost all of them, 76% of claimants, thought that Jobcentres would be checking up on whether they had carried out these pointless, unachievable activities. What this suggests is that many claimants seem to have been concerned that they were being set up to be sanctioned. 95% of claimants were all too aware that their benefits could be stopped if they did not prove they were looking for work with 89% being aware they could lose benefits for being late to a meeting.
The DWP’s summary of the two reports, which was used for this week’s media offensive, failed to mention two other findings in the survey. Claimants of UC were less confident that they would find work within three months, with only 76& agreeing compared to 78% of JSA claimants. They were also significantly more likely to report that there were not enough jobs in the local area, with 36% of UC claimants agreeing this was the case compared to 30% of those on JSA. This was not expected by the researchers who said it was “surprising as the JSA comparator areas were chosen on grounds that they have similar labour market conditions to the UC areas.”
Which brings us nicely on to the second evaluation which delved into the tax records of those who had been on Universal Credit as a means of finding out whether they had gained work or not after being on the benefit.
The problem facing researchers in carrying out these kinds of evaluations are finding two sets of claimants that are more or less the same in all areas except the one being examined – in this case whether they were claiming UC or JSA. As noted above, the local labour market is important. If one group is in an area of especially high unemployed compared to the other then this will skew the results. Timing is also vital, unemployment goes up and down, so it is important to establish whether the claims were made at more or less the same time. Another question is whether the claimants are the same – are they equally employable? Perhaps most importantly is the experience they received. Did Jobcentre advisors spend more time with UC claimants and provide more ‘help (stop laughing)? Was the sanction and conditionality regime the same? Was anyone put off claiming UC by the increased conditionality, such as someone with a health condition who may have decided to try and claim sickness benefits instead?
Sadly the researchers pretty much ignored the last few details, but there was an effort made to establish whether the claimants were roughly the same in terms of age, gender, histories of claiming benefits, sanctions applied etc. Ethnicity was ignored, perhaps wrongly as the survey evidence showed that UC claimants were 10% more likely to be white. Unemployment is around twice as high amongst people from ethnic minorities, this could be one small factor in why those on UC were more likely to get jobs.
And it’s fair to say that’s what this evaluation found. Those who had claimed UC were a bit more likely to have found some work. But this data is so noisy, with so many bodges, averages and assumptions, that this could be a fluke. Or it could be down to a whole host of other factors which the researchers couldn’t control for, such as whether someone was pregnant – meaning they would be ineligible for UC, but would still be counted in the JSA group.
It could also mean that the fear of sanctions, as outlined in the survey evidence, might have led some claimants to take up jobs they would not otherwise have done. This would no doubt please Iain Duncan Smith but it is a toxic scenario. The people covered by these studies were largely the newly unemployed, and therefore the most employable. Losing a job can be traumatic, and a recently sacked teacher or electrician does not usually run straight out to take a part time cleaning job on a zero hour contract. People take a bit of time, not because they are workshy, but because they want a job they have studied or trained for. If all Universal Credit is doing is bullying the most employable into low paid shitty jobs then it is failing everybody. The tax payer doesn’t spend a fortune training nurses so they can stack shelves in Poundland. This also means those who depend on those entry level jobs, who do not have large amounts of experience, stay long-term unemployed.
The results of these two evaluations suggest that Universal Credit could be the blueprint for a low waged, low skilled economy that we all feared. But we don’t know that for sure. Until people with kids, the self-employed, those working part time and people on sickness and disability benefits are brought into the mix we know nothing at all about how Universal Credit will function and that won’t be for years. The chances are that all it will do is shift unemploment around, with the most marginalised sanctioned and everyone else bullied into low paid work as soon as possible. This whole reckless experiment could drag Iain Duncan Smith’s bungling legacy far into the future. And to what end? No-one knows.
You can read the survey evidence at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-claimant-survey-nov-to-dec-2014-interim-findings
The evaluation based on tax records is at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-estimating-the-early-labour-market-impacts
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