When was the last time you took in an episode of The Archers? Last week? Last month? Sometime this lifetime? Whatever your radio habits, it’s unlikely that you’ll have missed out on Radio 4’s flagship rural drama, since it’s probably the longest running soap on the planet. It’s got a catchy old theme tune too.
Whenever you last caught an episode, one perennial storyline is likely to have threaded through the plot.
Whether it’s Eddie Grundy’s seasonal venture into turkey-rearing, or Pat and Tony trialling leisurewear hand-knitted from organic yoghurt, The Archers‘ cast of characters is constantly experimenting with new enterprise. And rightly so. Anyone who runs a business knows that it’s risky to rely on a single income stream. Farmers, whose livelihoods are vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather, the market and whatever foods are ‘on trend’ this season, know this more than most.
The advice is to develop a diverse portfolio of products. If a hot summer affects crop yields, at least the ice-cream business will flourish. It’s just plain common sense. Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) even publishes advice about it.
Sadly, the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) doesn’t seem to have read it.
Their flagship benefit system – Universal Credit – takes several benefits and rolls them all up into a single payment. This has been hailed as a masterpiece of simplification. Where applicants used to fill in several forms and submit details over and over, now they just have to do it once and – hey presto – a single payment of benefit lands in their hands, from which they can meet all of their outgoings.
Having seen the chaos of the old systems, and experienced the frustration of applicants trying to co-ordinate their communication with multiple agencies, I can understand the attraction. Sadly, the reality is flawed.
Universal Credit leaves our poorest and least resilient neighbours reliant on a single source of income. OK, maybe two, if they’re on ‘in work benefits’, but it’s still building in a vulnerability that, inevitably, makes hard times even harder to manage. If anything goes wrong – and it does – there is nothing to fall back on. No rent, no food, no electricity or gas, no bus fares. There’s no chance to prioritise to keep body and soul together because everything crashes out at the same time.
And crash out it does, from day one, because Universal Credit isn’t paid for five weeks after it’s claimed. That’s five long weeks with nothing, absolutely nothing. Debt is inevitable, whether unpaid bills or unaffordable debt. Stress comes as standard.
Add to that the cruelty of ‘Sanctions’. Fail to comply with a requirement and your payment can be stopped. Even if it’s your only source of income (which Universal Credit is designed to be) and even if the reason for the sanction is unreasonable and out of your control.
Is it surprising that more and more people are reliant on food banks? That rent arrears are skyrocketing? That – even according to our local Tory council – Universal Credit is forcing people into homelessness?
This week’s edition of BBC’s Panorama shone a brief spotlight on the inevitability of destitution that lies at the heart of the Universal Credit system. Instead of supporting people in need, it twists and breaks them. Instead of helping them to create a solid foundation, it builds in risk. If we’re all, at best, only three pay cheques from a park bench, many of our poor, sick and disabled friends who needed the help of Universal Credit are already there. As a welfare safety net, Universal Credit has far too many holes.
Ask any of The Archers‘ farming families and they’ll tell you that relying on a single source of income is not a good idea. OK, so they’re fictional, but the issues that the programme covers about income diversification aren’t. Neither are the issues that our neighbours are facing, day in and day out, from reliance on Universal Credit.
The Labour Party has pledged to stop the roll-out of Universal Credit and – most importantly – to fix it. Since Universal Credit has already been rolled out here in Rugby, it’s the fix that we need. When I say ‘fix’, I mean a complete overhaul to make sure people in need aren’t pushed further down the poverty ladder, offering advice and support rather than treating claimants as quasi-criminals and providing access to genuinely affordable housing to bring rents down.
And yes, let’s learn a thing or two from The Archers and build diversity and resilience into the system too.