Universal Credit: A decent society would not allow this scandal to continue – Laura Robertson

Recent changes to Universal Credit have been welcome, but more work is needed to address flaws in the system that are pushing people into debt, writes Laura Robertson.

The five-week wait to receive Universal Credit is one reason why recipients get into debt and are forced to use charity food banks (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)
The five-week wait to receive Universal Credit is one reason why recipients get into debt and are forced to use charity food banks (Picture: Andy Buchanan/PA)

Our social security system was designed to be an anchor to provide stability during hard times. With three million people now turning to Universal Credit, we can no longer ignore the reality that our system of social protection is in urgent need of repair.

In a decent society, it cannot be right that people are relying on friends, family and food banks to meet their basic needs.

Two reports released in the last two weeks add to the already significant body of work detailing the flaws in Universal Credit.

First, the Commons Work and Pensions Committee made a host of recommendations to reform the social security system, including ending the five-week wait for the first payments of Universal Credit, and ensuring anyone who’s been left worse off by the move to Universal Credit during the pandemic should be allowed to move back to the benefits they were previously on.

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Then, last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published research carried out by Poverty Alliance and the University of Glasgow which detailed the anxiety and hardship last year’s initial roll-out of Universal Credit had on people in Glasgow.

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How Universal Credit is ‘pulling people into poverty’

Recent changes to the system – particularly the £80-a-month uplift – are welcome but, with more people than ever relying on Universal Credit, we need to ensure the system supports people. As a researcher on the report, I interviewed claimants new to Universal Credit alongside Jobcentre Plus staff and other people involved in supporting claimants in Glasgow.

It is now widely reported that Universal Credit pushes people into debt. The five-week wait for claimants to receive their first payment after being granted the benefit leads to long-term financial hardship as claimants struggle with deductions for rent arrears and repayments of advance loans.

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Lack of internet access

One woman we interviewed, Kirsty, was struggling every day to get by financially, due to deductions for an advance payment and fuel debt. She described having to alternate between borrowing money off her sister and father and going without basic amenities like home internet access.

Our research, conducted before the crisis, also revealed that the Universal Credit system was failing to provide the individual support needed for claimants to find employment.

Jobcentre staff shared the strain they were under as they tried to manage an increase in more complex cases. Many people were reliant on phones to conduct the required 35 hours a week searching for jobs, with the costs of wifi and data adding to their worries.

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Navigating the system is more straightforward for people who are confident with and have easy access to IT. This is not the case, however, for many claimants who lack IT literacy or access.

The Department for Work and Pensions has stated that during the pandemic claimants are not expected to look for work. However, with many sectors due to reopen in the coming month, the likelihood is that claimants will soon be expected to provide evidence of up to 35 hours of job-search activity a week again but amid levels of unemployment not seen since 1947. This will be unnecessarily stressful for claimants and will only add to the pressure on Jobcentre staff as they police an ultimately futile search.

Searching 35 hours a week for a job without success

Whilst many of the people we spoke to had positive relationships with their work coach, they did not feel that they had adequate support to find a job. A conditionality-based system based on quantity of job-search activity rather than quality is not a supportive one. It will come as little surprise to anyone who has ever been unemployed, that everyone we spoke to felt that 35 hours a week of job search was unrealistic. As one interviewee put it, “If you job searched for 35 hours, and you’re not getting a job, I’d guarantee within a month you’re going to have depression.”

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Whilst Universal Credit is a reserved benefit, variations in Scotland, called “Scottish Choices” offer some positive options for claimants north of the Border. Many of the people we interviewed in Glasgow were scared of losing their homes, so the ability to have their rent paid directly to landlords was welcome. Conversely, despite claimants struggling between monthly UC payments, take-up of the option to receive payments twice a month was low. With the bi-monthly payment option, payment dates fluctuate every month leaving claimants with a sense of unpredictability.

Our report provides a list of recommendations and actions for the all those involved in delivering Universal Credit in Scotland.

Most importantly, the UK Government must increase the value of payments so they reflect the cost of living and end the deeply unjust five-week wait.

The crisis has highlighted just how crucial our social security system is in keeping us afloat; it is only right that we redesign it so that it protects all of us.

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Laura Robertson is research officer at Poverty Alliance

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