The unprecedented, rapid levels of global unemployment resulting from COVID-19 and the lockdown restrictions saw huge pressures put on social protection systems worldwide. In the UK, claimants for the Universal Credit benefit reached record levels during the lockdown months of April and May. According to the Department for Work Pensions (DWP) and Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 1.5 million claims made between 13 March and 9 April, six times more than in the same period of last year and the most since its 2013 introduction. The Universal Credit benefit system struggled to cope with the extraordinary demand surge, with an increase in claims of 40 per cent in just one month amounting to 4.2 million claimants by the end of April.
ONS figures this month indicate that unemployment rose to 3.9 per cent between February and April — with the number of people claiming unemployment benefit rising to 2.1 million in April, representing an increase of 856,500 the month after lockdown had begun. Government figures are currently not yet known for May–June, but the ONS has suggested that early indicators imply a further increase as the number of employees on payrolls was down by over 600,000 in May and claims for Universal Credit has continued to rise.
The UK government was initially widely commended for the surprisingly forward-thinking action it took in introducing the “Furlough scheme” to protect the jobs and income of millions of formal workers while companies closed their practices. However, many who lost their jobs have been forced to navigate the benefits system — many for the first time — as a form of essential emergency subsistence. Although the UK government did suspend the Universal Credit minimum income floor and attempt to make it somewhat easier to claim and reduce waiting times, many have found the system to be complicated and problematic to access. This is arguably by design. Reforms enacted to benefits claims in the UK since 2010 — which the then government coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties proudly claimed would be the most radical reforms since the beginning of the welfare state — have included: a single universal benefit (scrapping individual benefits, such as Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), tax credits and housing benefits); single, monthly payments; and a stricter regime encouraging unemployed persons to actively seek work. The intention was to create a greater incentive to work and to reduce poverty traps.
A timely report, released in February prior to the full impacts COVID-19 being realised, makes a damming critique of the benefits system as a result of the post–2010 reforms. The report explores how claimants experience a system which has incrementally moved towards greater compulsion and sanctioning and is now based on harsh conditionality. The authors assert that access to welfare has become progressively more “cruel, inhuman and degrading”. It also suggests that the UK is now the “second harshest in the world” with penalties including the 100 per cent removal of benefit income for up to 3 years in some instances. Other punishments include the reduction or removal for 28 days for claimants who miss one Jobcentre appointment and if they make the same mistake three times, this suspension of the benefit is increased to 91 days.
Based on a longitudinal study, taken from interviews with benefit recipients between 2014 and 2019, they further argue that unemployed claimants were experiencing material suffering which sometimes had life-threatening effects. This “state perpetuated harm” of “punitive welfare conditionality” could be understood as “social abuse” including “the demoralisation of the futile job-search treadwheel and the self-administered surveillance of the Universal Jobmatch panopticon”.
It also details that owing to years of cuts and “the age of austerity”, and its profound impact on social protection public spending, the working-age social security budget has been slashed by £37 billion with direct consequences on unemployment benefits. For instance, the JSA payment was reduced and then frozen from 2016 and worth a paltry 12.8 per cent of median wages by 2018. This compounded already existing problems affecting unemployed people such as wider cuts to housing benefits, the so-called “bedroom tax”, and the household benefit cap. Further exclusion has been exacerbated by the fact that claims are now “digital by default” that “erects a digital barrier that obstructs individuals’ access to their entitlements” for those who are unused to or have no access to the internet-based government systems. The result has been a climate of “fear and loathing” of the system that is supposed to be there as a source of social protection and accessed as an enshrined human right.
The study concludes that the UK system has fundamentally shifted from one that should provide help and care, to one that through the “threat of sanctions and the conditional system of welfare reform”, is both humiliating and punishing and a form of “institutional violence” for many claimants.
The DWP did announce fractional financial increases to the Universal Credit amount that came into force in April. However, the government has acknowledged that it could take a long time for the economic situation to return to normal. For now, many millions of people will be reliant on a benefit system that has been redesigned in accordance with greater, harsher levels of punitive conditionality precisely at a time when the government has less capacity to screen applicants, enforce sanctions and support beneficiaries. It continues to obfuscate and punish and deter people claiming their rightful entitlements in times of either new-found or ongoing socio-economic hardship. These challenges show little sign of ending any time soon and this system is completely out of step with what is called for in a post–COVID-19 world.