Monday, 8 April 2013

Won't Universal Credit just make more Philpotts more likely?

There's a strange dissonance in British politics at the moment. The Government wants to be seen as tough on welfare, and tough on the causes of welfare. Conservative Ministers have seized on the case of Mick Philpott (above), convicted last week of killing six of his children in a revenge plot gone wrong, as an example of the 'lifestyles' engendered by paying out benefits all the time.

But when you look in more detail, it isn't always addressing many of the root causes of what welfare 'dependency' and fraud there actually is in the UK (more on its true extent another time).

Take Universal Credit. Most civil servants involved wish someone would, but there you are. Leave aside for a moment the possibility that the project will become one more of those expensive IT disasters that litter the history of British governance over the last thirty years. It might work, and recent u-turns on, and downgrades to, the project will give it more time to work in a smaller series of trials. This column has said from the start that this reform has got 'catastrophe' written all over it, but let's take it on its merits.

The real worry, given the Philpott, controversy, is that Universal Credit might make domestic abuse, violence and benefits cheating even worse.

For the Philpott case wasn't really caused by the abuse of the benefits system. Sure, the man could and should have been working. But that wasn't why he had so many children by women that he dominated and abused. That was down to the fact that he was a fanatically controlling and obsessive individual. It was a classic case of domestic abuse that any expert could have painted from a textbook.

Now take a look into the immediate future. The new Universal Credit system will fold almost all benefits - though admittedly not Child Benefit - into one, single, monthly payment. That will mean that the rage and the war inside houses like Philpott's will probably become more and not less acute as these sorts of men try to take control of their partners' bank accounts and financial lives - and get a single opportunity and gateway to get their cynical, nasty hands on all the cash. Remember that much of the money that the Daily Mail and its allies complain about as 'benefits' was paid as tax credits down to the fact that both Philpott's wife and his girlfriend were working. It wasn't a workshy household, overall, at all. It was Philpott, not 'the Philpotts', that were at the root of it all. Now it will be even easier for such men to get all that money paid to them if they can only force their frightened wives or girlfriends to sign the forms. It isn't quite the impersonal fraud that will probably dog this system from its inception, but it looks a lot like it.

So there you have it - an argument that's being used as a 'wedge' issue, manipulated behind the scenes by the Prime Minister's new electoral svengali, Lynton Crosby, to paint the Labour Party and its leader as weak on welfare and on cheating. But the Coalition's own reforms might make both those situations worse.

Has anyone thought of this? I only ask.

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