Researchers at University College London studying the roll-out of the new system found there was “salient and plausible evidence linking UC to an increase in recorded crime”.
The peer-reviewed findings, published in the British Journal of Criminology, are the latest piece of evidence adding to a growing body of work suggesting less generous social security systems drive increases in lawbreaking.
The study’s base model suggested UC – which puts more restrictive conditions on claimants – “led to a 6.5 per cent increase in crime during the five-year period we look at, 2013-2018”.
Crime has soared up the political agenda in recent years, and in 2019 overtook health as the second most important issue for voters after Brexit, according to pollsters YouGov. While the situation has varied, especially during the pandemic, the issue has remained close to the top of priorities since.
The researchers were able to track UC’s relationship with increased reported crime because it was rolled out in different areas of the country at different times, effectively at random.
Their study controlled for other factors linked with increases in the crime rate, such as cuts in the number of police officers, cuts to local services, and improvements or deteriorations in the economic situation.
It concluded: “While it is impossible to comprehensively prove causation from a single, observational study, our results provide salient and plausible evidence linking UC to an increase in recorded crime.
“Not only does the crime rate increase as the number of claimants rises, but the introduction of UC to each area also coincides with a shift in the long run trend in crime.”
Dr Matteo Tiratelli, the author of the UCL study, told The Independent: “You can see it: when particular places institute Universal Credit, the change happens afterwards, and the length of time that different places have been under the Universal Credit system, those places have seen higher crime rates than others.”
He added that there was “a growing evidence base that says restrictive social security systems, in general, do lead to higher crime rates”.
The link between UC and crime was so pronounced, Dr Tiratelli said, that there were “clear” policy implications for how to address the crime rate.
“One of the things that I find interesting about it is if you look at the scale of the effects not just Universal Credit, but also other changes around the world to social security, the effects on crime are much bigger than the effects of policing initiatives that we tend to turn to when we want to reduce crime,” he said.
“So if we look at the impact of rolling out new ways of doing policing, or increasing stop and search or increasing funding to the police etc, the kinds of effects we’re seeing from social policy more generally are at least as big as those from crime-focused police initiatives. I think the policy implications of that are quite clear.”
He said that while types of crime driven were often property-related – suggesting people might be trying to supplement their incomes – that this was not always the case.
“The effects seem to be quite broad: it’s not just about survival crime where people are pushed to breaking point because of poverty and they resort to property crime to supplement their income, it doesn’t seem to be just that that’s happening: it also seems to be the strain, stress in general this big restriction on how generous the social security system is has led to people becoming stressed in all different areas of their life,” he said, adding that much increase was “to do with a much broader stress and strain, disruption in relationships and family units that are caused by a reduction in generosity of our social security system”. Previous research has suggested a link between UC and an increase in domestic violence.
The findings tally with other evidence from around the world, including in the US and Europe, that less generous social social security systems tend to push up the crime mate.
Another paper published by researchers at the University of Sussex in July 2020 also found a similar link.
Economist Rocco d’Este found UC “had caused around 45,000 burglaries” and said evidence suggested that “crimogenic effects” were “expected to grow considerably by the time UC is fully rolled out” to 6.5 million further people.
That paper’s analysis also suggested that “the worsening of benefit recipients’ financial conditions” was “the key mechanism”.
Dr Tiratelli, who worked on the paper with researchers Ben Bradford and Julia Yesberg, said: “No one piece of evidence is going to completely clinch the argument, but using the data, looking at it in different ways, different researchers looking at it in slightly different ways, we’re all coming around to the same conclusion that there does seem to have been an effect of Universal Credit on crime.”
He added that the findings “fits with the international picture more generally”.
In the US, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research published earlier this month found that benefit cuts across the Atlantic had greatly increased the chance that affected people would end up in the criminal justice system.
The Office for Budget Responsibility in 2016 recognised that that Universal Credit was “now less generous on average than the tax credits and benefits systems that it replaces” due to cuts in the programme implemented in 2015 by George Osborne, especially in the work allowance.
But other parts of the system are more punitive by design, including a mandatory five-week waiting period for benefits which drives claimants into rent arrears and debt, harsh deductions from payments, and strict conditionality requirements and sanctions.
In July 2020 the House of Lords Economic Affairs committee said in a report that UC “has features that are harming many, particularly the most vulnerable”.
The five-week waiting period for the first payment “increases extreme poverty and harms vulnerable groups disproportionately”, they said, while “deductions from Universal Credit awards have left some claimants with an income that is substantially lower than their essential needs”.
On conditionality and sanctions, the report said: “The extent of conditionality has been increased significantly over recent years and too often to the detriment of claimants.
“The UK has some of the most punitive sanctions in the world, but there is limited evidence that they have a positive effect.
“Removing people’s main source of support for extended periods risks pushing them into extreme poverty, indebtedness and reliance on foodbanks. Furthermore, there is a great deal of evidence that sanctions, and the threat of sanctions, are harmful to claimants’ mental health.”
The cross-party committee of peers added: “Universal Credit can disadvantage women, disabled people and BAME people.”
“It is also linked to soaring food bank usage. Housing providers have reported dramatic increases in rent arrears. Many claimants report finding the system incomprehensible. Universal Credit’s reputation has nosedived.”
Responding to the new study on the link between UC and crime, the Department for Work and Pensions denied that the evidence existed.
A government spokesperson said: “There is no evidence Universal Credit causes crime and the report’s authors themselves acknowledge it is impossible to prove the cause of criminal behaviour from a single, observational study.
“Universal Credit provides a strong financial safety net: it is more generous overall than the old system and makes it easier for people to claim support they are entitled to.”