Expectations of the new service are high. In 2018 the Trussell Trust, the foodbank network, whose claim that demand for handouts spiked where UC was rolled out was confirmed by Work and Pensions minister Amber Rudd, called for consistent and independent support for claimants across the country. Its article You Can’t Live on Thin Air: The Wait for Universal Support said:
THE ONE IN FIVE
“Help is clearly needed. 70% of respondents to our survey said debt was an issue during the wait, the most likely difficulty encountered by people. These debts lasted well into the claim – the most common issue encountered by claimants on UC were repayments of pre-existing debts, while 1 in 5 had issues repaying their advance payment.
“Half of our sample cited ‘difficulty managing budgets’ as a direct outcome of the wait for the first payment, and many others cited IT difficulties in their applications. And over a quarter of people reported IT issues whilst on Universal Credit, particularly disabled people, and IT difficulties were cited as a key trigger for failing to meet requirements.”
A report published by Southwark Council reveals the need for more support to prevent rent arrears. Southwark is London’s largest provider of local authority housing and was one of the first areas to roll out UC’s Full Service to new claimants. Analysis comparing tnew claimants in 2016 and in 2017 found little improvement despite enhanced infrastructure and support.
Safe As Houses 2 revealed DWP initiatives had failed to reduce the number of tenants accruing rent arrears. The Landlord Portal, a new administrative system giving providers near real-time information on claimants’ housing element payments, had made little impact. Research also found “those who struggle to make their claim for UC or those who have multiple, significant changes in circumstances while claiming UC are most likely to fall deepest into rent arrears”.
Councillor Victoria Mills, Cabinet Member for Finance, Performance and Brexit at Southwark Council, said: “It is a disgrace that the Government’s flagship benefit reform is leaving residents waiting for money to pay for the roof over their head and that huge numbers of residents are dependent on charity for food. Any delay to payments for those who are already under immense financial pressure will result in unrecoverable debt and unacceptable stress on people’s lives.”
Bath was also a UC pathway area and is now the location for the first Quids In Centre, opened in March by Clean Slate Training & Employment in partnership with Quids in!. The Centre responds directly to the financial challenges faced by social tenants, claimants and low income earners. Clean Slate offers money skills, employability and digital access support from a number of locations across Bath & North East Somerset. It delivers Quids In’s ‘3 Bs’ money skills programme and ongoing, peer-led support that takes participants through a financial resilience review and action plan. One of its aims is to reduce the one in five UC claims that are delayed or cancelled altogether.
Lisa Woodman, Partnerships Manager at Quids in!, said: “A year ago, we took the decision to re-purpose the content of Quids In’s magazine, our Universal Credit Guide, website and money email service, and deliver it ‘in the room’ as training. Take up from partners like Clean Slate, and the impact on claimants, was immediate.
“We found people enthusiastically engaged with sessions that look at much at lifestyle choices and money habits as they do budgeting tricks and tips. We saw participants find work within weeks and achieve goals to improve their quality of life. One worked with staff to suddenly find themselves thousands of pounds better off. We’ve now opened a second Quids In Centre in Gloucestershire and plan to open five around the UK in the next year or so.”
In 2018, Quids in! research found UC claimants face disproportionate hardship compared to other people in low income households.
Notably, 22 per cent had cancelled broadband to save money despite UC being managed online and seven per cent acknowledged having turned to a loan shark.
Help to Claim will struggle to meet the needs of claimants. They require more than budgeting advice and support to get online. Evidence suggests foodbanks, and debt and housing advice services, will continue to be over-subscribed and individuals will still feel their mental wellbeing under attack, limiting their ability to work and increasing demand on health services. Landlords continue to need more than the Landlord Portal.
READY OR NOT
Laudably, UC places responsibility on claimants to manage their financial affairs but indicators say they are not ready. UC then ties one hand behind their back by putting them into debt from day one and adds delayed payments for the most vulnerable. UC was designed to make work pay but research suggests it is also incapacitating people who skip meals, go cold and feel ill.
“We have to act on this evidence [Safe As Houses 2] now and look at how we can support our residents and the pressure on our services,” adds Councillor Mills. “This situation is echoed across the country. The Government needs to take rapid steps to fix Universal Credit or urgently acknowledge that they have created a system that is unworkable and broken.”
Universal Credit may now be too big to fail, too far down the road to go back. Legacy benefits were outdated and failing claimants too but the support systems were in place to keep them working. UC may be the best alternative but the £51 million for the wraparound support required is the tip of the iceberg and it will take more than one agency to deliver it.