The Universal Credit roll out has felt like a very slow Tsunami making its way towards Wandsworth. We’ve heard the warnings and with a growing sense of doom, we have seen the result of the switch to Universal Credit in other areas of the country. But the roll out has continued regardless.
Welfare reform on this scale could have had positive benefits with simplifying a complicated system of multiple benefits into one payment. However there are some structural flaws with the system that must be fixed now, before more people suffer because of an administrative change.
We’ve seen Food Bank use and homelessness increase elsewhere. The Trussell Trust – who run 400 foodbanks – have reported a 52% increase in use of the Foodbank in areas with Universal Credit compared to those where it hasn’t yet been rolled out. The charities Mind and Macmillan Cancer Care are amongst many who have raised major concerns about the impact of UC for people with disabilities.
Even the Work and Pensions secretary admits it isn’t working as reported in the Times today (6th October), ‘Ministers are becoming increasingly alarmed about the rollout of universal credit after Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, confirmed privately to colleagues that millions of families would lose £200 a month under the new system. Ms McVey told cabinet colleagues that half of lone parents and about two thirds of working-age couples with children would lose the equivalent of £2,400 a year.’
The problems are: the gap in payments of an average of 5 weeks at the start, compounded by the switch from fortnightly to monthly payments, having to be entirely online and needing IT support to do this, administrative problems and – here’s the real body blow – the resulting benefit is not enough to live on, especially for people with disabilities and their families.
Local voluntary organisations have been working together to lobby the council to be ready for the roll out. I have been going to the on-going meetings between the Job Centres, Wandsworth Council, South West London Law Centre, Foodbank, Citizens Advice Wandsworth, Advising Communities and local charities as a result. But getting the basic data has been a real problem – to measure and be able to prevent increasing debt and homelessness we have to know what the situation is to start with.
The move towards being entirely online for people on low incomes is very hard. The forms need IT literacy, residents living in Wandsworth temporary accommodation do not have broadband become Wandsworth Council (despite ‘temporary’ being usually for many months and sometime for years), they need a good level of English to use. The responsibility for following up on setting up the new account, making and attending appointments and getting in paperwork has changed to being the claimant’s responsibility. Many people have not had this early explained and are losing out. All of these can be resolved – but some claimants need a lot more support in the early stages.
In Wandsworth Food Bank use has increased since the introduction of Universal credit. More people are going to the Legal Advice Centres – the voluntary sector is picking up the pieces of poor policy and a refusal to stop and rethink. Here is the excellent annual report from the Wandsworth Foodbank with more background, stories of impact and recommendations.
An estimated 10% of people on Universal Credit need additional support with different parts of the process like help with IT, form filling and budgeting. But if at the end of the day the money is not enough this isn’t going to solve the fundamental problem of Universal Credit
The roll out of UC in Wandsworth will continue next year to families with more than two children, and this tidal wave will be sweeping across many families who will need extra support. The Council, Job Centres and voluntary organisations must work much more effectively to be able to see what the impact is and where more action needs to be taken.
Better yet, the Government should judge the success of UC by its impact, and make the changes needed – with no gap in payments, fixing the admin problems and reviewing the benefit amounts.
The National Audit Office’s report on UC found that it is not delivering on value for money and they won’t be able to measure whether it is increasing the number of people who are in work – the two key reasons for the switch.
There is more coming – as a new wave of people being ‘migrated’ to Universal Credit is coming, and from April 2019 will also include families with more than 2 children. Change is very urgent.
Sign the petition to Wandsworth Council here: https://www.change.org/p/wandsworth-council-act-now-to-support-local-people-at-risk-of-debt-and-homelessness
Read the Trussell Trust report here: https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/research-advocacy/universal-credit-and-foodbank-use/
Watch the video: https://labour.org.uk/issues/universalcredit/