Theresa May has u-turned on far smaller policy issues and after much less pressure. It's time to scrap this one, too—before even more people sufferby Dawn Foster / October 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
A few years ago, I learnt to visit nearby coffee shops before visiting interview subjects about benefits. After twice meeting people mortally embarrassed that they couldn’t offer tea or coffee, because they were struggling to afford electricity, I started calling them to offer to collect a drink for them. Now, with Universal Credit delays, I’ve learnt to pick up sandwiches too.
The delays built into Universal Credit are extreme: no one I’ve spoken to has waited for less than six weeks; some have waited four months. Few people I know have enough money to support themselves entirely without earnings—those who do have savings could only make them last for a week or two with housing costs. Most people applying for Universal Credit don’t have savings at all, having either lived on subsistence benefits or supplemented their income with benefits to make ends meet.
Nearly all of them have a difficult choice to make. If you don’t pay your rent, you’ll be evicted and made homeless—the Observer reports half of people receiving the housing element of Universal Credit are a month behind with their rent, and one in three are two months behind.
The only option for most people stuck waiting for payments is to cut their food bill, and cease using electricity and central heating. A veteran I spoke to this week hadn’t eaten for four days and had been without electricity for that whole period. An employee of a large city council told me they’d spoken to a woman who was behind with her rent due to Universal Credit delays, and were shocked to hear she was eating twice a week while waiting for payments to come through.
The news from David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, that the helpline for claimants will be free by Christmas will barely comfort those being shifted onto the system. The fact that calls to the line cost 55p per minute from mobiles was financially ruinous for many claimants, who were often on hold for 30 minutes at a time and reported being cut off and having to rejoin the queue, swiftly eating up their phone credit. The announcement represents a big political win for the Labour party, after a sustained, high pressure campaign against the helpline costs.
Yet the main issue with Universal Credit remains in place: the built-in delay as claimants are shifted from one benefit to another. From the start, experts warned that the system designed to administer Universal Credit was ill-equipped to deal with the shift onto the benefit, with IT failures reported by those working in the benefits system and those in recipient of social security.
The rationale behind Universal Credit is to create a more straightforward benefits system, with people applying for one payment comprising several components, rather than testing eligibility for multiple benefits—such as housing benefit, child benefit, Jobseekers Allowance and disability benefits—and asking people to apply for each separately.
But the promised streamlining hasn’t occurred: the system is error ridden, and many people are waiting far longer than the six week period the government aims to pay recipients within.
Even those paid by the six week target are struggling: not being able to pay your rent and living costs for a month and a half is no way to live. Many are waiting even longer: one person emailed me to say they’d been waiting three months for payments, endlessly submitting online queries as to why they hadn’t received them. Each time they were finally able to contact staff on the helpline, they were told there were “errors” in their claim, though they weren’t proactively informed of these errors. They are facing eviction imminently.
Theresa May has u-turned on far smaller policy issues and after much less pressure. For the Conservatives to still stick to their bull-headed refusal to pause the rollout, make sure people have enough to live on and house themselves until the endemic problems in the error-ridden system are properly ironed out suggests they view Universal Credit as too big to fail.
As with the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit is the incompetent and embarrassing furniture left in Number 10 by David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith. Both those men have been cleared out of their offices: Theresa May should do the same with their misguided welfare policies.