Layoffs, redundancies, furloughs and unpaid sick leave have become a widespread feature of the Coronavirus crisis. Part-time workers, the self-employed, and even those who previously considered themselves to be in secure work are staring down the barrel of an insecure future with regards to employment. This has led to a record number of people requiring support from the government, and for many will be their first encounter with its one-size-fits-all benefits system: Universal Credit. Now Universal Credit’s use is going to be more mainstream amongst the population, huge swathes of the UK are going to be exposed, for the first time, to its inherent failings, oddities and ruthlessness.
Events are changing thick and fast in lockdown Britain, but the Government’s response for workers has been slow and underwhelming. Coronavirus, as I wrote in my previous article, is exposing the fact that Britain is built on a concoction of insecure, underpaid and undervalued work. With businesses closing and cutting back its staff numbers, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has reported that almost 950,000 people have applied for Universal Credit in just two weeks. The brainchild of former DWP Minister Iain Duncan Smith, Universal Credit was put in place for the majority of the UK in 2018, following trial rollouts in various cities and regions, and is designed to bring the benefits system into a single structure.
On the face of it, this thinking has some merit. The previous benefits system placed the responsibility for the administration of welfare payments across multiple governmental departments, which in turn created a complicated set-up for claimants – Tax Credits from the HMRC, ESA/JSA from the DWP and Housing Benefit from the Local Authority. However, the administration of the new Universal Credit has been atrocious, with, as Novara Media said on their TyskySour podcast, the system being designed to be frustrating and stressful for those that make claims.
One of the major flaws of the system, which so many more people are now going to feel the cold, hard injustice of, is the waiting time from the moment the claim is made to the moment you are first paid. It usually takes around five weeks for a claimant to receive their first Universal Credit payment, a timeframe that due to the current huge increase in applications may get even longer. The Trussell Trust have said that this five week wait has led to “acute financial hardship, and damaged households’ longer-term financial resilience” including “destitution, housing insecurity and debt.”
There are no plans to improve on this wait time, despite the unique circumstances, with the Government simply pointing towards the Advance Payment that claimants can apply for. This Advance Payment can be applied for after the UC claim is made to tide you over until you receive your first UC payment. Luckily, the government has had the foresight to implement the rule that you no longer need to have a Universal Credit interview to ask for an advance. However, it is important to remember that, once claimed, these Advance Payments are then reduced from your ongoing award at high rates, leaving people, again, out of pocket and unable to pay for the essentials they need. They represent nothing more than an in-built loan system within Universal Credit. To add to claimants’ issues, UC is then paid once a month in an attempt to mimic the experience of traditional salaried workers. This method is obviously a complete oversight of the lived working experience for the self-employed, gig-economy workers and those on casual contracts. The injustice continues with the rate of pay for under 25’s being £66.05 less than those over 25, despite young people being more likely to be in precarious work.
The ridiculousness of the waiting time is compounded, particularly with this specific crisis, by the ludicrousness of the application process. At the best of times the Universal Credit phone lines are frustrating for clients and advice workers alike (ask anyone that works for a Housing Association, Local Authority or CAB how much they hate Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ which, until recently, was the UC phone line’s hold music). The UC phone lines are now busier than ever with some cases of 76,628 people being ahead of claimants in the queue. The bigger hurdle for many is the fact that Universal Credit is administered almost entirely online, which has obvious problems in normal circumstances, but in a crisis such as this is hugely exacerbated. More than five million people have never used the internet, one in ten of Britain’s households don’t have access to broadband, and only 47% of those on low incomes have broadband access at home (if only there was a recent policy that would have aided this problem). With libraries closing across the country, many people’s access to the benefit system is being cut off. In addition, libraries and Advice Services don’t just offer claimants a place to access their UC Account or journal, but also provide them with guidance and assistance through UC’s purposely complicated and confusing processes.
The logistical nightmare of UC is one thing, but the toll it has taken on people’s lives is something different entirely. UC has left people in and out of work massively out of pocket and driven up Food Bank use. The DWP have lost several high profile court cases in which they were found to be unlawfully discriminatory towards the severely disabled and have forced some claimants to sadly take their own lives. This is on top of a developing problem that if you are in a relationship and live with your partner you must make a joint Universal Credit claim. This has horrific consequences for those in abusive relationships, as the award from a joint UC claim can only go into one bank account. This issue has become exacerbated with UK domestic abuse cases being on the rise due to the Coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown.
What we are looking at with the increase in use of the Universal Credit system is this inadequate and uncaring tool of the Government becoming a lived reality for more people than ever before. UC is a system designed to be used for a certain few in society, the forgotten in our community that have got no other means of bringing in income and putting food on the table. Before Universal Credit was even implemented the Tories began to give its funding the chop. The government never planned for UC to be a lifeline for the wider public and we can only hope this saga will show more people the horrific conditions this government has placed on the poor, disabled and those that have fallen on hard times.
Where Can You Get Support in Worcestershire
Claiming Universal Credit
- You can claim Universal Credit online at https://www.gov.uk/universal-credit/how-to-claim or by calling 0800 328 5644
- If you need help making a claim contact Citizens Advice Help to Claim call 08001448444, or visit https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/helptoclaim/
- If you can’t wait 5 weeks for the initial Universal Credit Payment then you can request an Advance Payment through your Universal Credit online journal or by calling 0800 328 5644. (Note this payment is then paid off through deductions to your ongoing Universal Credit claim)
- There are some opportunities for students to apply for support: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/universal-credit-and-students
Getting Help & Advice
- Call Worcestershire Citizens Advice Adviceline on 03444 111 303 and they can put you into contact with the correct Bureau
- You can text them on 0786 00 77 311 stating (i) your name (ii) your postcode (iii) the type of advice needed (for example DEBT, HOUSING or BENEFITS). CAB will then call you back on your mobile phone.
- Email them at email@example.com
- The Turn 2 Us Benefits calculator gives you a rough guide what benefits you are entitled to: https://benefits-calculator.turn2us.org.uk/AboutYou
- If you are need of food then please get in contact with your local food bank: https://worcester.foodbank.org.uk
- If you are in an abusive relationship and worried about the exacerbation of this relationship under lockdown please get in contact with West Mercia Women’s Aid or get a family member or friend to at http://www.westmerciawomensaid.org or 0800 980 3331. You can also call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247
- If you are worried about having to claim Universal Credit in a potentially abusive relationship you can apply for split payments in exceptional circumstances: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/universal-credit-alternative-payment-arrangements/alternative-payment-arrangements
PLEASE CONTACT WORCESTERSHIRE TRANSFORMED IF YOU NEED GUIDANCE ON ANY OF THESE ISSUES