That all sounds good, but so far, roll out has been massively delayed, the system has been beset by expensive IT problems, payments are taking ages to process, and even insiders accuse it of under-funding, understaffing and poor training. Not only that, finding solid information about who will be receiving it, in which regions and when, is hard to find – although we are told that 6.5 million people will be claiming by 2017. It's true most major changes suffer a few glitches, but is Universal Credit on the right track, as the politicians insist? And will it ever work?
See bottom of page for basic UC Fact File
WILL IT WORK?
Here's what the experts say:
- New Statesman writer Tom Belger: Five Reasons Why Universal Credit Won't Work
- Public Finance reckons people will opt for shorter working hours in order to keep an element of benefit. Click here
- UC won't make work pay for single parents, says The Mirror. Click here
- The BBC News Universal Credit Q&A outlines winners and losers. Click here
FRONTLINE STAFF UNPREPARED
A survey of around 400 members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union found 90% believed expensive IT systems dealing with the benefit were less than adequate. Almost three quarters said working conditions were worse than in their previous role and four in five said the training was less than adequate to prepare them for working on the scheme. Click here for more on the PCS website.
In March 2015, Channel 4's Dispatches programme sent an undercover reporter to train as a UC helpline advisor. To the background of frequent comical announcements from IT about the computer system going down, he was told that the Flexible Support Fund, Hardship Fund and Same Day Advance were 'Like Fight Club'. Advisors should only talk about them if the claimant got close to begging for help. See the programme here. Read programme review by The Huffington Post
DIGITAL BY DEFAULT
Applicants for UC must fill in an online form. Across job centres, 6,000 new computers will be installed for claimants to use; official advice also suggests going to libraries, although many local libraries have closed - or have firewalls prohibiting uploads (of CVs). Even given a computer, many people applying lack the skills to use one. The result could be that advisors at benefits offices, CAB and housing associations are forced to assist claimants to fill in the form. See our Digital Inclusion Special for ways to help get clients online.
The reasons for Digital Exclusion are explored by 21st Century Challenges. Johnny Void’s blog The Void points out that it’s common to go to a computer in a public place such as a internet café and find the previous user is still logged on to Facebook. He writes that applicants may have no understanding of online security, so digital by default policies could start a fraudster’s free for all.
The Quids In! Reader Survey 2014 asked readers about accessing the internet. Those who responded by post said:
- 39% have access via a PC at home
- 20% via smart phone
- 15% via a library
- 6% at work
- 9% could borrow someone else’s
- 32% none at all
- 69% have access via a PC at home
- 43% via smart phone
- 9% via a library
- 29% at work (an indicator that those online are better off)
- 8% could borrow someone else’s
- 1% none at all (an indicator that some people didn’t understand the question)
This system relies on IT, not only in calculating benefit - or among claimants managing their claim. Employers will have to keep the HMRC fully up to date with staff earnings through a computer system called Real Time Information. So far, however, the Government has written off £34m for IT work. Read Computer Weekly's assessments in its 2013 report here and its report on testing the system in November 2014 here. Read what the FT had to say.
DELAYS TO PAYMENTS
People applying for Universal Credit will have to wait one calendar month while their entitlement is calculated, and then a further seven days before the money reaches their account. Anecdotal evidence indicates that many people are waiting longer, or may find that, having been advised to apply, their claim is rejected. There has already been an increase in reliance on food banks and growing rent arrears, which could drive claimants into the arms of payday lenders. Read the TUC's report
COMPUTER SAYS 'NO'... SANCTIONS FOLLOW
Far from being a flexible friend, Universal Credit is proving unable to cope with complex cases, for example, where a client wants to move out of the area. Job searches away from the area can be classed as invalid and sanctions are also being applied very frequently. (This is highlighted in the Ch4 Dispatches programme.) If benefits are withdrawn, the client can apply to the Hardship Fund, but Dispatches found they are not being encouraged to do so. See the BBC's report here. The CAB has a comprehensive page of advice for those who have been sanctioned, click here.
Many claimants deal with their money weekly and are at risk of sliding into debt through monthly payments in arrears, potentially falling back on payday loans. This makes money management and debt prevention a priority.
BBC’s report: Universal Credit: benefits start move to monthly payments, includes video interviews with Work and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Labour's shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne.
The last of the Government's Direct Payment Demonstration Projects reports was published in December. (Read the reports here.) 24Dash concludes that the findings reveal a significant threat to housing associations. Read their story here
HOW WOMEN LOSE OUT
Many analysts believe that Universal Credit plays to regressive models that could disadvantage women in households:
- UC may reinforce the traditional ‘male breadwinner’ model and affect many women’s access to an income according to LSE blog
- Women’s Aid Foundation feels welfare reform will impact disproportionately on victims of domestic violence, and could make some refuges unviable. Click for more
- The Women’s Budget Group (WBG) is concerned about Universal Credit and other areas of welfare reform. Read the WBG's report here.
- The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says UC could trap people in poverty and will affect women disproportionately unless some major flaws are ironed out. Read more
UNIVERSAL CREDIT FACT FILE
- April 2013 the scheme began with a small number of new claimants in Pathfinder Areas in four areas of Greater Manchester. Only some single, unemployed people living in these areas who were capable of working were included.
- July 2013 UC offered to limited groups in 'pathway' areas.
- April 2014 Pilots completed.
- February 2015 UC began to be phased in across England, Scotland and Wales. More claimants will gradually move on to UC if they have a significant change of circumstances, such as starting a new job, or when a child is born.
- Spring 2016 UC to be offered in some way by all job centres in Britain.
- End of 2017 the rest of all those eligible in England, Scotland and Wales will be moved on to universal credit, although Iain Duncan Smith has suggested that deadline may be missed.
Which benefits will it replace?
It will gradually replace the following means-tested benefits and tax credits:
- Income Support
- Income-based Jobseeker's Allowance
- Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
- Child Tax Credit
- Working Tax Credit
- Housing Benefit
- Budgeting loans - an advance payment of UC will replace these.
Who receives it?
People on low incomes, including so-called hard-working families who claim Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and/or Housing Benefit will all migrate to UC. The first to move are new and 'simple' claims. People looking for work, sick or disabled, or caring for children or a disabled person will be affected. Those earning below a certain threshold will also be eligible for UC. Anyone applying for UC must agree to a claimant commitment outlining what they must do to prepare for work, find work, get better paid work, or work more hours. So 'hard-working families' could eventually face sanctions too, if they don't earn enough to get them off benefits.
£99 per delegate. In-house training for groups of six to 25 costs £990. Call 0344 515 1161 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Shelter also has a detailed Introduction to Universal Credit on its website.
Policy in Practice offers afree Universal Credit calculator
Turn2us offers advice, including a calculation of how much a client will get and how their income and capital will be treated when applying.
The Money Advice Service has a feature Get Ready for Universal Credit on its website
CAB has a comprehensive guide for claimants
Disability Rights UK has an online guide. Click here
Child Poverty Action Groupdetails how some councils are tackling application online. Click here
Digital Unite will be holding its Spring Online campaign between 20 - 26 April 2015. Hundreds of free taster events will be held by volunteers and organisations across the UK to help and inspire local people to achieve a lasting use of the internet. See more
Computer Recyclers UK s a family-run business working with Microsoft’s Initiative Get Online @Home to provide affordable, internet-ready computers throughout the UK.