By Zack, a QUAC member
I’m glad I went to the Universal Benefit Workshop as it was really informative. The standard of the contributions, not only from those people running the workshop but also from those attending, was almost without exception very high. I found myself feeling quite humbled by what I’d witnessed!
I was approaching this subject as a novice having been fortunate enough (so far!) not to have had to negotiate the benefit system, and it was a steep learning curve. In a packed programme the stand-out points for me are in the small practical details of delivery of this system. In theory to have one universal benefit in place of the muddle of the different benefits we have now would seem like a no-brainer, but the government intends that access to it should be conducted online.
I am always concerned about this assumption of widespread computer literacy and access as I am pretty certain that a significant proportion of the client base are the very people who would have difficulties with this. It doesn’t bear thinking about either that you would be moving away from being able to discuss things with a human being in the event of having to appeal something – I can imagine the frustration, stress and despair this might give rise to. Government IT systems don’t have a good track record either.
The motivations for delivering it this way are money saving of course and you’d be able to employ less people – we did hear from Jane Aitchison of PCS whose members will be expected to deliver Universal Benefit, some of whom are in receipt of benefit themselves. With that in mind it was pointed out that most people in receipt of benefit are in fact working (the rise of non-permanent, part-time/not enough hours jobs that is the reality of the Tories’ private sector, so-called job creation efforts, must be adding to this picture). A further practical niggle is that benefit would be paid monthly, and whilst a fair proportion of people would already be used to monthly budgeting this would be difficult for a significant number of the most vulnerable people, giving rise to money-management issues. And all this against a background overall of probably less benefit money anyway thanks to cuts and caps etc.
Taking an overview and from a personal perspective I’d be fearful of the ‘Big Brother’ nature of this (if they actually get the IT to work of course!) and my instinct has been to keep under the radar. The nearest brush I had with benefits was contemplating jobseekers allowance and we heard from Mark Dunk of Right to Work who had personal experience of this and how your efforts to apply for jobs on line (however futile you believed that process to be rather than going out and knocking on doors etc., as some prefer) could be monitored and that you were required to do this as proof. How much easier it would be under the new system to track you and impose a set number of hours doing this sort of thing.
After the workshop I did go on to the plenary session which was really about where does the campaign go from here. I was succumbing to a bad headache by this time so my concentration was not at its best, but the most immediate, acute concern for some was fear of eviction due to bedroom tax/benefit reduction/caps whatever. It is hoped that Labour councillors might play a part in stepping in to prevent this on the ground – it’s the usual cry of where is the Labour Party in all this and what is it doing? In fact as we’ve seen this week Labour’s Bedroom Tax campaign has borne some fruit and IDS has had to publicly retrench a wee bit. Otherwise it was hoped that people would rally round their neighbours to oppose bailiffs and physically prevent evictions – all rather desperate stuff really. On a more positive note, we were encouraged to support some of the bigger protests coming up, for example the PCS Strike Day on the 20th March, and to link up with unions, trades councils and supportive councillors (Labour/Green Party) etc., as a united front. There is going to be a follow-up Benefit Summit on 11th May 2013.
To see OccupyNewsNetworkUK coverage of the Benefit Justice Campaign Summit click here