THE introduction of Universal Credit (UC), which combines six benefits into one, was announced by the Government in 2012. It was piloted in 2014, and has since continued to be rolled out nationally.
The intention of simplifying the benefits system appears commendable, but it is, in fact, causing harm to the people whom it is intended to help. Research that I have been carrying out at the B30 Trussell Trust Foodbank in Birmingham, as part of the Economic and Social Resarch Council-funded “Life on the Breadline” research at Coventry University (News, 23 November 2018), suggests that problems with applying for and receiving UC are forcing people to use foodbanks.
There several reasons for this. First, the Government said in 2015 that the aim of UC was to “reduce poverty, worklessness, and welfare dependency”. The message seems to be that poverty was caused by unemployment, and that the route out of it was to find work.
But this fails to take account of the fact that UC is a benefit not only for the unemployed: it combines multiple benefits for different situations, including people who are in work, and disabled people who are unable to work. Therefore, the aim of UC — to reduce “worklessness and welfare dependency” — does not apply to people who are already working, or who cannot work owing to a disability.
The Government must recognise that the benefit is not only for people who are unemployed by addressing stigmatising language used around UC, and must move away from UC’s single aim: to reduce “worklessness”.
Second, the five weeks that it takes to receive payment after applying for UC is too long. Many applicants do not have enough money for rent, food, and other daily costs to live on during this five-week wait.
Yes, an applicant can apply to receive up to one month’s benefit payment in advance to cover the five- week wait, but this is taken out of future UC payments. Many clients at the B30 Foodbank told me that because the advance payment was being taken out of their ongoing UC payments they had to use the foodbank: the money that was left was not enough to live on.
Last week, the Trussell Trust published research that suggests that the longer UC exists in an area, the higher is the need for foodbanks. The trust is heading a campaign to end the five-week wait, which its chief executive, Emma Revie, says, pushes people into “debt, homelessness, and destitution”. It is important that the Government listen.
A THIRD problem with Universal Credit is that applications must be made online. This presents problems for people who do not own a computer and must travel to use a public one: for example, at a library. It is also a problem for people who lack computer literacy. The Government should give more help to people to make digital applications, and paper applications should be available.
A fourth problem is that UC payments are made monthly in arrears. The Government’s logic for this is to “prepare” claimants for employment. Earnings from employment are not necessarily paid monthly, however, and could be paid weekly or daily — it depends on a person’s contract.
For those who are in work and claiming UC, the payment takes into account work undertaken in the previous month. This logic seems reasonable, but can be problematic, depending how and when a person is paid. One lady whom I spoke to at the B30 Foodbank told me that she was there because her UC payment had stopped, owing to an inaccurate assessment of her previous month’s wage from working in the NHS. This had happened to her five times in the previous 18 months, and she had been left without enough money to feed herself and her children.
The introduction of fortnightly payments would give people a more regular income, making it easier for them to budget.
OVERALL, changes are needed to UC to ensure that the social security system in the UK acts as a safety net instead of pushing people (further) into poverty. Through projects such as foodbanks, churches are playing a crucial part in responding to the needs of people in poverty.
Responding to need is not enough,however: the Church’s fourth Mark of Mission calls us to “challenge unjust structures”. It is, therefore, vital that Christians also capture people’s experiences and campaign for change in the circumstances which lead people into poverty — including Universal Credit.
Dr Stephanie Denning is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. For more information about her research, follow @SJ_Denning on Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.