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How does Universal Credit affect society’s most vulnerable?

The latest Welfare reform (source: Derwentside Homes)

Universal Credit is a fundamental change to the UK’s welfare system which has been a wide-spread source of controversy since its inception.

The reform, which began its roll-out in 2013, replaces six benefits and tax-credits, including Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit. It is currently being rolled out in parts of the north-east, and has already come into effect in areas such as Newcastle East and Bishop Auckland.

Key changes have been made to the way people access benefits, including the way their bills are paid. Universal Credit is a lump sum paid directly into the claimant’s bank account every month, meaning they must budget accordingly, and bills such as rent are no longer automatically paid for them.

How have these changes affected people who access welfare?

Wayne Dobson, a former Money Mentor at Wisegroup Tyne and Wear, agrees with Universal Credit’s concept, but finds the application lacking.

“I love the concept of Universal Credit. I love that it nudges people towards work, and gives them a monthly sum. But it doesn’t educate people on how to manage that monthly sum.”

Wayne Dobson works closely with those who access State Welfare

Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, promised a streamlined reform ‘where work always pays, and people are supported to earn’, but Wayne feels that this overgeneralises the groups of people who access welfare, including those with mental illnesses.

“Universal Credit is for people who are looking for work, who are motivated and have no complexities. Throw people in there with complex issues, and you get a group of people under this ‘motivated to work’ stage who have massive health conditions, from mental health to learning disabilities, to Asperger’s and autism.

“It’s a little more difficult for them to navigate the system. So, they get into difficulties because they don’t fully understand the work commitments, and get sanctioned.”

Applicants may receive a short guide to Universal Credit, but for some, it may not be enough

While sanctions are not exclusive to Universal Credit, a study conducted by David Webster at the University of Glasgow suggests that people are three times more likely to be sanctioned under Universal Credit than Job Seeker’s Allowance.

This adds to a waiting period imposed on benefit applications, which consists of a seven-day waiting time, a one-month assessment period and seven days for payment to be made, amounting to six weeks before welfare reaches a claimant.

“I met a lady in the Tyne and Wear area who had a thirty-day sanction, so that’s no money for that duration. They basically say: ‘try and survive for thirty days, then come back and make a claim. But don’t forget, there’s a seven-day waiting period, then five weeks before you’ll get any money.’ That thirty days becomes almost a three-month punishment.

“Why, in one of the world’s richest countries, do we say to people: ‘you aren’t getting any money from the state for three months’ and expect people to go out there and live? It puts people into vulnerable situations. It makes people do high-risk things to survive.

“If you haven’t got money for food, you’re going to do something to get food, whether that’s begging or shoplifting. Vulnerable females have moved in with mature, older men, for a place to live. That’s just tragic. We have an already complex group of people, and we’re adding to those complexities.”

Philip Hammond addressed concerns regarding the amount of time it takes for welfare to reach applicants, announcing that the seven-day waiting period would be scrapped during the 2017 Autumn Statement.

He argued that reducing the the assessment period’s delay could be ‘compromising the principle of payments being made on the same day of each month, a key feature of the system for claimants in managing their budgets’.

Despite attempts to improve Universal Credit’s roll-out, the guidelines on sanctioning remain unchanged. As well as mental health issues, people with serious illnesses are also punished, says Wayne.

“I visited a guy that I worked with, and he didn’t answer the door. I could hear him shouting for help inside. I went into his house and he’d collapsed. He’d been there for five days. He was supposed to sign on the day he collapsed but because he didn’t they stopped his claim. He was then not in receipt of any money at all.

“This is a guy with DVTs [deep vein thrombosis] in his legs, and had just spent a week in hospital for malnutrition, so I had to put him in my car, drive to the Job Centre, and physically carry him into the centre to get him an appointment. The staff were all embarrassed.

“The system is flawed in many ways. That person was down to seven pence on his electricity, and that’s not uncommon. When I worked in Newcastle and Sunderland, within five months we had 106 people on our books. All with some degree of hardship.”

Universal Credit’s roll-out has been flawed by the amount of time it takes to process a claim, and the lasting, unfair effects that sanctions have on claimants.

This can be attributed to overgeneralising the types of people it is supposed to support, a problem Wayne has seen evidenced in his career.

“There needs to be a level of understanding of those with complex needs. They have taken a group of people and stuffed them all in the same box, and some just don’t fit. We need to get some individuality back into the system. It should be okay to be the exception, because a person’s individual needs need to be met.”

With Christmas just weeks away, people on welfare undoubtedly expect to endure a hard holiday season. While welfare transitions will never be straight-forward, many will still wish that more was done to protect them during a traumatic period in their lives.

You can also learn how the transition to a digital system has affected Universal Credit below:

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