Will the pandemic help us to get a grip of Universal Credit?

Nearly a million people awarded UC over just 2 short weeks

It’s hard to believe that nearly a million successfully applied for Universal Credit in the two weeks between 16th and 31st March alone. Coronavirus has triggered a rise of more than 500%, from 60,000 to 371,000 claims a week. The surge in applications dwarfs the impact on the benefit system during the last recession triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. It’s hard to avoid using that over-used word we’re hearing at the moment ‘unprecedented’;  we really have never seen anything like this before!

As a result of this hike in numbers, DWP had no option other than to make the Universal Credit application process easier, with appointments over the phone and a less stringent application process where people are (understandably) not having to attend work-focused interviews with a nominated work coach at the job centre. This change has – temporarily at least – made it less complicated to apply for UC for applicants facing barriers to access (you have to ask yourself why it couldn’t have been made a bit simpler before now) …

The UC claim system has been simplified but still far from simple

 But last week’s statistics published by the Citizens Advice network tell us that the network of charities delivering the Citizens Advice service helped 90,000 people with their UC claims since lockdown started on the 23rd of March. So the process may have been simplified but it’s still definitely not simple. Ok maybe it should never be really easy – the right checks and balances must be put in place when it comes to accessing benefits, but at the moment the system is still really problematic.  So let’s cast our minds forward. What happens when we revert back to the pre-pandemic claim process with more people now losing their jobs through sectors like the hospitality  industry not being able to carry staff financially through the crisis?

We’re in trouble.

Food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network are reporting their busiest time ever, with an 89% increase in emergency food parcels given to people across the UK in April 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

As the impact of coronavirus continues to unfold, a lot of people facing financial difficulties will be waiting for their first payment of Universal Credit for 5 weeks, and will already have taken the ‘advance payment’ which will cover bills and essentials temporarily. But it’s also recognised that, before the pandemic struck, in every area Universal Credit has been rolled out, food bank usage figures have shown a rise up to to 48%.

UC claimants too often end up in debt

We also need to be aware of the worrying issue of debt for Universal Credit claimants. A recent survey showed that 70% of people fell into debt during the 5 weeks wait for their first payment. Step Change said that since the beginning of lockdown in late March, as many as 1.2 million people had fallen behind on utility bill payments, 820,000 people on council tax, and 590,000 on rent. They also estimated that 4.2 million people had borrowed to make ends meet, mostly by using a credit card, overdraft or a high-cost product such as a payday loan.

People clearly need more financial support whilst they are waiting for their first payment. This is an issue that is going to continue to get worse as more people are losing their jobs and having to claim Universal Credit.

Radical change needed in housing and homelessness for UC claimants 

If we look at the Housing situation in context of the Coronavirus, we have seen some positive measures brought in by the Government. The Eviction ban has just been extended for a further two months and there was a huge drive (the biggest since the second world war) to get the homeless of the streets during the peak of the pandemic.

Many ‘street’ homeless are now on Universal Credit for the first time and are being supported by DWP staff and given the Job Centre as a ‘care of address’ so they can overcome the barrier of not being able to claim the benefit because they aren’t able to provide a permanent address. Again, this is very positive, but this needs to be upheld as restrictions are lifted.

Surely it is morally wrong to protect people and give them accommodation because of the pandemic, but then turf them back onto the streets once it is over?

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. Local housing authorities face a huge task, and will undoubtedly need support from the Government, charities and the community and voluntary sector to get this right – we need to work together and be absolutely determined to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks at all costs.

This is going to be a challenge. Housing is already a big issue when it comes to Universal Credit.  The Trussell Trust found that housing was the primary problem for 56% of claimants, citing the 5 weeks wait as the reason because people were pushed into rent arrears with either a private or social landlord, making it difficult then to recover. People on Universal Credit have also said they have found themselves being discriminated against by landlords who have lost confidence in the benefit due to late payment of rent or arrears due to complications with Universal Credit. If you’ve looked at local houses for rent adverts recently you’ll see they’re still proclaiming no DSS! This is a vicious circle.

If we’re to get a grip of Universal Credit there’s a lot to do

Coronavirus and lockdown has really made a bad situation significantly worse. More people are now claiming Universal Credit, and have just had to adapt. 

However, now we have an opportunity to get it right and this is our call to the Government and DWP. There’s a lot to say, but if we were only able to make one challenge, it would be:

Please accept that the 5 week wait is simply too long.

Society Matters cic is doing its bit to make its mark, and thousands of charities working hard on the front line are saying the same thing. Let’s stop people losing their homes, getting into debt, reaching crisis point, for the sake of a system that can be changed. Social welfare matters. Society matters. Let’s call to Government to invest what has been learned through the pandemic to get a grip of Universal Credit once and for all.

This window of opportunity may never arise again.

Adam Matthews, Social Welfare Instructor at Society Matters cic

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