We all probably carry more closely a sense of injustice than a sense of true justice - "I have been wronged!" "This is unfair!"
As a Christian my sense of justice comes from an understanding of God’s perspective on the world. I believe in a God whose reign is full of justice and mercy; who prefers and cares for the poor, and for the poorest most of all.
In our own society that justice works - or doesn’t work - in three ways: agreed just policies, applied fairly, and managed efficiently.
So, to Universal Credit. Whether this way of running the benefit system is just and right has been hotly debated of course. But it is the policy of our present government, and the one that is now being applied. Regardless of our feelings about the policy itself, I am distressed and angered at the level of devastation I hear about from priests and congregations around our Diocese, because the managing of the system leaves the vulnerable still more exposed to increasing debt, uncertainly and fear.
Those who suffer are real people -vulnerable decent, caring people. Take Sally (not her real name) from the Warrington area, a single mum raising two children. Having to change her employment to work around child care she applied for Housing Benefit in June. 4 weeks pass and she’s told the council are doing their best but are running behind. 3 months after her initial claim it’s determined she needs Universal Credit due to her postcode area. And this comes with a refusal to backdate her payments – despite all the evidence she gives, the bills and the debt pile up.
As she said “it’s been quite hard for me to keep on top of my bills and support my children with just my salary from a part time job. I have managed to pay most of my rent but am still in arrears. Having been working on tax credits for the last 5 years this has really messed my finances up and has been quite stressful at times. My children rely on me. I completely understand that all new claims have to be assessed but people like myself are suffering as a consequence through no fault of their own.”
This is not just, and it’s not right. Like thousands of people, Sally and her children are suffering through no fault of their own. And this is before the new timetable demands that existing benefit claimants are brought into the new system. Delays in benefits payments of beyond six weeks instantly threaten social housing and private tenants with eviction, piling on the stress. A frankly Kafkaesque bureaucracy is making it expensively impossible to get the information you need, with reports of claimants paying out pounds and pounds in premium phone charges as they wait for answers from an overloaded staff.
It is the vulnerable who suffer most. Those already disadvantaged, and ill-equipped to understand the complexities of Universal Credit, feel they are fighting a battle they’re doomed to lose. The stress of the claims system is pushing some into still more debilitating mental, anguish, difficulty and indeed illness. Those who should be cared for by our nation are abandoned to the safety net of the church and other voluntary agencies. As a church leader I know that the voluntary and faith communities are working hard to make up for the deficit in effectiveness; but we can’t meet the need.
This is not just. This is not right. As a person of faith I believe that this is not how God ordered society and wants us to be. Isn’t it time, as a society that claims to be developed and even advanced, that we began to live that way? As a Christian bishop I want the Church in my area to be making a bigger difference, bringing more justice to the world. In this case justice must surely mean a system for benefit payment that is a true safety net working efficiently for the vulnerable in society.
For Sally’s sake - for God’s sake - let’s pause the Universal Credit rollout until these problems can be overcome.