From 5th December 2018, Liverpool will have seen the beginning of the full roll-out of Universal Credit (UC).
Supposedly designed to encourage people into work, and top up the wages of those on a low income, UC will eventually scrap individual ‘legacy’ benefit payments, in favour of a ‘one size fits all’ approach; it has so far been met with massive criticism, and its shortcomings have trapped people in an inescapable cycle of poverty.
The new benefit has previously been running on a ‘live service’ in some places since 2014, meaning it was only for single, unemployed job seekers, which had huge issues in itself. Nevertheless, despite several pauses due to ongoing pressure, the government have chosen to ignore warning signs, and roll out UC citywide, and eventually countrywide. It will now begin to affect people with far more complex circumstances, despite Work and Pensions secretary, Esther McVey, admitting that there are ongoing problems with it, and that ‘some’ people will be worse off – it is estimated that half of lone parents and two-thirds of couples with children will lose £2,400 a year – £200 a month – once they are transferred onto UC.
UC replaces Job Seeker’s Allowance, Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Income Support Allowance, and Employment Support, as well some other benefits. The complete move across to UC will take time, but Liverpool is one of the first areas to witness the ‘Full Service’ – West Derby and Everton Jobcentres will be the last in the city to move across to the full service on 5th December. Any benefit claims after this date will be claims for UC.
The first people to move across to the full service will be those who are already on the UC live service – that is, those who have already been receiving UC payments. These existing claimants have been contacted by the DWP with a ‘Call to Action’ letter, and been told they need to put in a claim for UC – it is vital not to ignore this letter. It is not an automatic transferral onto UC full service, and if they fail to make an application, benefits will stop.
The next to transfer are those who have a change of circumstances. For example, where previously, if you were found fit for work, you would move from Employment Support to Job Seeker’s Allowance, you will now move from Employment Support to having to apply for UC.
Eventually, everyone who claims these ‘legacy’ benefits will be transferred onto UC, but a timetable for when this will happen has not yet been made clear.
It was originally stated that this process would begin in July 2019, but now the DWP have said it will only be tested on a very small scale in 2019, affecting less than 10,000 households nationwide. It is projected the transfer will be complete by 2023.
The process for applying is long and confusing, requiring a multitude of documents that many may not have access to, and can only be completed online – and in one sitting.
The first step is verifying your identity online, via GOV.UK Verify (there is a link to a step-by-step guide at the bottom of this page on how to do this). It is crucial to complete this process, even if you are already on UC, otherwise payments will stop.
Applicants then need to contact their local Jobcentre to arrange an appointment, so that their information can be checked.
Even these few stipulations flag up multiple issues, which Liverpool City Council highlighted in a response to the Social Security Advisory Committee. What about those who do not have internet access, or are not computer literate? What about those who cannot easily access a Jobcentre? A grand total of eight Jobcentres have closed in Merseyside recently, yet people are still expected to easily access these facilities for appointments – ignoring the fact that many don’t have the money for bus fares, have children that make travelling difficult, or other problems. It is also possible to get an advance payment while an application is still being processed, which will be paid back in deductions from later payments.
Steps are being taken to try and minimise the negative impact the full roll-out of UC will have on the city. The council have brought groups together, such as social landlords, the Citizens Advice Bureau, foodbanks and charities, to pool resources and best practices and create the Universal Credit Advice Model.
This will address the different areas that assistance is needed, such as preparing people for UC by making sure they have the necessary tools available (National Insurance number, birth certificate, etc.); help with making a claim; help while waiting for UC; help with managing money and debt advice; signposting people to additional benefits available (council tax support, free school meals, and so on). The DWP will pay for people to get provisional driving licences if they do not have any other form of identification, and will reimburse people for public transport to get to the Jobcentre for their verification appointment (if the appointment is on a different day to the usual day you would sign on).
UC has faced a massive backlash from politicians past and present, organisations, and individuals. Dan Carden, MP for Walton, gave a speech in the House of Commons in September, detailing how many landlords in his constituency are refusing potential tenants on UC, because of massive delays in payment. UC is supposed to mimic wages from employment, and so is paid monthly in arrears, meaning it takes five weeks to receive the first payment from when the application is approved.
The government are very quick to emphasise how UC incentivises people to work, as it ensures that work always pays, but the reality is drastically different to the picture the government are so eager to paint. Unemployment, they say, is at its lowest since 1975, yet 2.8% of the workforce are on zero-hour contracts, meaning they have no stable income, and the way that some companies pay their staff means that sometimes people will be paid twice in one month.
All of this means that UC payments will default, causing huge problems, and resulting in people being signposted to call centres whose sole objective is to hit call targets, or jobcentres who will only direct them back to the ‘help line’.
It is not difficult to see how this situation will very easily spiral. In 2017, homelessness was up 15% from the previous year, and has sky-rocketed since 2010, when the current government came into power. From then, the number of families with children that have been made homeless has almost doubled, from 22,950 in 2010, to 40,130 last year. This is only set to rise as UC is rolled out, as it heralds a massive £3bn in cuts to welfare.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said how these plans will plunge more than one million children into poverty, and that the country is facing a ‘summer of discontent’ if they do not heed warnings to scrap the plans for UC.
The UK seems to be taking a backwards step, rather than striving to make sure people in work are adequately paid. In the present day, we are seeing huge spikes in people using food banks despite them working, because their income and income ‘support’ isn’t enough to pay the bills and feed their families.
How much longer can this go on? It is estimated over 120,000 people have died unnecessarily since 2010 due to austerity measures. There are many brilliant organisations, both locally and nationally, that aim to fight poverty on the ground, providing food, clothing, and other essentials to those that are desperate.
But the fact remains that there should not need to be such a demand for these services, which cater to the most basic, fundamental human needs in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while those at the top get richer, and the gap between rich and poor continues to expand.
It was recently announced that austerity was finally over. Over for whom? The teachers, hospital staff, and police force, that have faced increasingly difficult work conditions and pay cuts? Pensioners who struggle to keep the heating on in the winter months, despite them having worked for their entire lives? Or the millions of people who, as of next year, will be transferred onto Universal Credit, and struggle to feed and house themselves and their families, even though they’re working?
Austerity worst affects those that already have the least. We can only hope that the government listens to criticism and ongoing pressure, and halts the full roll out of Universal Credit before the damage is irreparable.