Last week’s shock Conservative victory in the House of Commons has been swiftly followed by the reaffirmation of a commitment to sweeping welfare reforms (following a pre-election pledge by Ian Duncan Smith, now reappointed as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to cut twelve billion pounds from the welfare budget over the term of the new government). Duncan was behind the original launch in 2010 of the former Coalition Government’s beleaguered flagship welfare system, Universal Credit (UC), now being rolled out across a limited number of local authorities in the UK. Long before it has made significant national impact on claimants, it has already faced widespread criticism from women’s groups, landlords and Gingerbread, the single parent advocacy group, to name but a few. A Labour-led government would not have reversed governmental commitment to the system, and had promised only to ‘pause’ it; it will be remembered that Coalition welfare reforms followed an existing pattern of ‘labour market activation’, privatisation of state functions and ‘responsibilisation’ begun under the New Labour governments of 1997 onwards. Rather, we can see UC as the culmination of a quintessentially neoliberal form of welfare governance. UC represents a massive regulatory experiment, attempting a type of sweeping ‘algorithmic regulation’ whereby the tax and pay information of claimants, as well as, potentially, their job-searching activity, can be continually surveyed (although the online jobsearch requirement, originally imagined as centred around the Universal Jobmatch website, has already fallen foul of common sense on many points). UC also mandates new forms of behavioural demands on claimants, out of work or not: the new Claimant Commitment requires ‘workless’ claimants to devote a full 35 hour week to evidenced jobsearching, overlooked by their ‘work coach’ (JobCentrePlus advisor). In a new development known as in-work conditionality, UC requires claimants receiving less than the amount of a minimum wage job at 35 hours per week to seek ‘more or better paid work’ – and the jobsearch and evidence requirements will also apply to them. A ‘randomised controlled trial’ of different types of incentive for these new ‘part-workless’ has just been launched; one group is to be summoned to ‘challenging’ interviews after 2 months of not earning ‘enough’. If deemed not to be making the required effort to get paid more or work more hours, both working and ‘workless’ claimants face lengthy sanctions or workfare. The gender impact of this situation is clear, although largely ignored in publication and discussion within recent Governments, which tends to avoid mention of single motherhood altogether, preferring to talk about more positive-sounding issues such as family stability. So keen is Ian Duncan Smith to link the ‘unstable family’ with social decline that he recently tried to have it instated as an official measure of child poverty (somewhat surprisingly, his proposed redefinition would have excluded income altogether). Despite the official failure to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of UC reforms on women, it is undeniable. Because women comprise the highest proportion of both low-paid and part time workers, women and less well-off couples with children (who may earn under the conditionality threshold if one partner is not working full time and the other is low paid) will be among the first in line to feel the smack of the new welfare governance.
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