Universal credit’s payment system tramples on individual liberty

Matt Kilcoyne

August 1, 2018

In 1975, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, Barbara Castle, introduced child benefit. She insisted it went into the purse and not the wallet. Rather, that it was not a joint payment to a family but one specifically going to the mother as an individual.

Now, I’m sure that Baroness Castle would be turning in her grave to hear a staff member of the Adam Smith Institute give her praise, but she deserves it for this: the late Red Queen of Labour expanded individual liberty by moving the payment from joint accounts to mothers.

Not only did the cash payment increase the purchasing power of the mothers who received it, not only did it grant them agency over what they wanted to buy with the money, but it also reduced the level of domestic abuse in Britain at the time.

It was, in effect, an independence payment.

Independence matters, it means the ability to choose to walk away and start a new life, it means the right to live free from abuse, and it means the ability to buy what you think ought to be bought with the money you have.

Right now, this legacy and this freedom are under threat. Today, the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry warned that payment of Universal Credit to a single family account, instead of to individuals, risks dragging some men and women back to the dark days before Barbara Castle’s reform. And it exposes a worrying change in the ethos of the Conservative Party, back to one that fails to appreciate individual liberty – one of the pillars of British conservatism.

The Government argued that forcing households to submit a single bank account for receipt of Universal Credit meant that couples would more clearly see the effects of their decisions about work on total household income, and that decisions were best made by the family. In addition, it was argued that families managed finances together and joint accounts gave the family special status.

That word: family. It’s a word that many of us know and love, but too many of us don’t. Families are not the common denominator of our society. They remain, positively, the majority, but the form and structure that they take are varied and government policy should respect that. And the best way for policy to reflect society, rather than to try and mould it, is by respecting the individual.

We shouldn’t forget that by respecting the individual, we best respect the family too. Margaret Thatcher was a big supporter of the family unit, but it is worth remembering that she was first and foremost a supporter of personal liberty. Her pronouncement that there is no such thing as society is often quoted without the following part: “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”

In full, Mrs Thatcher’s interview for Woman’s Own is an exceptionally revealing one. While she characterises life as being a “living tapestry of men and women and people”, she also recognises the “problems of human nature”, and she mentions that she personally knew people in situations where it was “very much better that the family broke up because there was a streak of violence”.

It’s a practical response to a very real world problem. It seems oddly striking that the Conservative Party nearly thirty years after her departure as Prime Minister wants to take us back to even less nuance in its rollout of Universal Credit.

Giving men and women separate payments is about increasing their unfettered ability to act as individuals. If the state plans the family unit for us, then as Hayek put it: the more difficult planning becomes for the individual. States that do not respect the individual, their values and personal pursuit of happiness, cannot truly call themselves free. Cutting the choices available for those most in need is a retrograde step.

And while domestic violence has been on the slide for a decade, we now risk reversing that, and the Conservative Party risks letting go of what has been at their ideological heart for decades. Indeed, as Ned Donovan writes for the Spectator today, Mrs May will have given yet more evidence that she’s abandoning her fight of Britain’s “burning injustices”.

This only ends badly for the government: pain and misery for those men and women in abusive relationships, a PR scandal that only adds to the “nasty party” image, and charities rushing to turn their guns on those in power. All of this is unnecessary and, quite frankly, un-Tory.


Written by Matt Kilcoyne

Matt Kilcoyne is Head of Communications of the Adam Smith Institute.


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