Today the public accounts committee published a highly critical “early progress” assessment of welfare and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith’s “flagship” benefit reform. The universal credit scheme to roll up six means-tested benefits into one, has, according to the report, been overseen by extraordinarily weak management. Systems were so lax that a secretary authorised purchase orders worth £23m, the MPs found. They also doubted whether the project could be fully delivered by its deadline of 2017 and described the pilot programme for the scheme as “not a proper pilot” – inadequate and open to fraud.
The devastating report says that £425m has been spent so far on the programme, adding: “It is likely that much of this, including at least £140m worth of IT assets, will have to be written off.” The scope of the pilot programme, says the report, “is limited to only the simplest new claim of people who are single, have no dependents and would otherwise be seeking Jobseeker’s Allowance.”
While Iain Duncan Smith points the finger at the civil servants, and they in turn say ministers now feel able to “shrug off their responsibilities and blame staff”, people continue to arrive at this London food bank hungry and in need of immediate help. Many are victims of a benefits system that is inadequate and failing to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.
On the face of it, 54-year-old Gary Watson might seem to fit the category of someone whose benefit needs are relatively “straightforward”. He’s a single man, and came into the food bank – one of nearly 400 in England run by the Trussell Trust in partnership with churches and communities – because his benefit has been stopped. He hadn’t received any Jobseeker’s Allowance for six weeks by the time he got to us recently. He says his benefit ceased because he hadn’t applied for the right number of jobs within the specified time frame. “I only applied for 20 jobs in two weeks, and it’s supposed to be 42 jobs. I’m sending letters out, but not getting any feedback from the employer.”
Gary, a qualified glass cutter, is broke and I believe he’s in danger of getting depressed too. He has the air of someone who’s giving up. I ask him what he’s been eating in the last few weeks:” All I’ve been eating is fried dumplings and beans. This is all really difficult to talk about. I need to stay calm about it. Some people would have cracked up or done something stupid. Because I haven’t been eating regularly I’ve got a lot of wind in my stomach.”
In the past Gary has also done some retail work and has worked as a bricklayer. He’s been unemployed for a couple of years now, and “in and out of programmes”. He’s too proud to let his friends and family know how bad his situation has got. “I’m appalled. I’ve got to a certain age and now the employers are only taking on youngsters. They know that at the job centre, but they still want to push you. It’s made my life hell. I don’t know how they can cut you off without giving any consideration to the individual.”
His mother is 87, and a “wise woman”. He said he used to “run to my mum, but I stopped asking her for help”. He adds: “When I go round there she asks if I’m alright for money, and I say yes. I just don’t want to take from her. Sometimes she has £10 in her hand and she says ‘take this’.” She’s a good-hearted woman, but Gary says he doesn’t want to “feed on that”.
He adds that when he was young, he could just “walk into different jobs”. Now his life is much harder. He lives in a council flat, but when I meet him his electricity meter is just about to run out and then he won’t be able to heat food up. He has problems with his gas central heating, which has packed up.
If the current benefits system is leaving single middle-aged men such as Gary high and dry, what will the eventual toll be on individuals, families and society once these reforms work their way through? When will we decide that enough is enough? Millions will be thrown down the drain. Millions more people left hungry and in despair….