When David* began his application for Universal Credit (UC) last September, he immediately realised he was facing a benefits system unrecognisable from the one he had last turned to to claim Jobseekers’ Allowance in 2011.
‘The whole process of applying for it is very stressful compared to previous benefits,’ he says. ‘The bureaucratic nature was anxiety-inducing. In many cases the actuality of how your life is and the documentation you have is very different [to what is being asked]. It’s like you’re not really dealing with a human being.’
UC was introduced in 2013, as part of a raft of welfare reform carried out by the coalition government to create a modern, simplified, and more responsive social security system. Since Iain Duncan Smith first unveiled UC and plans for wider changes in 2010 alongside his commitment to ‘make work pay’, an estimated £14 billion has been stripped from the system. By the end of 2019, this meant the standard rate of UC (£409.89 a month) was only 15 percent of average earnings.
Meanwhile, as new IT systems were introduced to handle the benefit, so too was a raft of draconian limitations like the bedroom tax, the two-child limit, and the benefit cap. This digital-by-default design and the minimal personal support offered merely shifted the burden onto claimants to navigate an increasingly complicated, punitive, and financially inadequate system.
The Five-Week Wait
‘I find it much harder to budget. I’m always behind with some of my bills,’ says Mary, who was moved onto the ‘dreaded’ UC several years ago after dropping out of university. Despite having been in full-time education, she was left to wait five weeks for her first payment; unlike her previous benefits, UC is paid a month in arrears to ‘mirror the world of work’. She was also left in the dark about how much that payment would be. ‘When I asked about my housing and council tax benefit allowance, [my advisor’s] reply was ‘you will have to wait for your first statement in four-five weeks’ time’.’
This five-week wait has been found to be a key driver of rent arrears and foodbank use. The sole lifeline offered to address the problems it poses by the DWP is an ‘advance payment’ – in effect, a loan that must be repaid in the next 12 months by deductions of up to 30 percent of the already low standard allowance. Repayments force many claimants further into debt.
Emma managed to get a job before she had paid back her advance, which she soon found out meant she had to make a minimum monthly repayment of between £50 and £100. ‘I literally had no money, and the wait had been so long,’ she says. ‘On UC it was £20 a month repayment.’
Since the start of the pandemic over one million claimants have faced deductions on their benefits, and the Trussell Trust has found that half of the households visiting their food banks are unable to pay for essential items due to the cost of paying off UC debts. Most of these are deductions for the advance payment, but some people are paying the cost of a system plagued with error.
Mix-ups with payments meant that Emma was at one point being underpaid while homeless. When she raised the problem she was accused of lying. ‘It took 3 weeks of me missing £250 and living off £62 to sort out. It turned out they actually owed me £1100.’
An estimated £340 million was over- or underpaid to UC claimants during 2019 as a result of administrative error from the DWP. The figure for 2020 is likely to be substantially higher, with many unaware that they have been overpaid and are therefore facing deductions. Others will have been left short, like Emma, without any justification.
Fit to Work
The lack of answers, trust, or support experienced by both Mary and Emma are common features of claimant interactions with the DWP. A 2019 survey from Demos found that only a quarter of the public think Jobcentre staff would treat them fairly – and for disabled people and people with long-term health conditions, the level is even lower.
‘I was told I had made poor life choices,’ says Carl, who applied for UC in 2017 after a physical impairment left him unable to continue construction work. The DWP continued sending him seasonal gardening and warehouse jobs to apply for as he awaited a Work Capability Assessment, despite the fact that he had informed them of his condition in the first 15 minutes of his interview.
His experience only worsened as he went through the assessment process. ‘I went in there and I wasn’t abusive. I was quite polite and tried to answer as honestly as I could. You find out six months later that it really didn’t matter what you said – they’d probably made the decision as soon as they saw you.’
For Carl, that decision declared him fit for work, meaning he was required to regularly look for work and attend job training programmes. Upon appeal, he found out the extent of mistruths written about his assessment: ‘[the assessor] put down that I have two dogs and I take them out for a walk four or five times a week. I don’t even own any dogs!’
Winning this appeal finally placed him in the Limited Capability for Work category, which means he has to prepare for work but is still left, he says, in ‘a system that I don’t think helped me in any way to get back to work. It’s top-down – they look at you as if it’s indicative of your character that you’ve lost your job, and it’s your fault.’
One of the key tools used in this top-down approach to move people towards employment is sanctions. Work-related conditionality had been stripped out of the system for the first months of the pandemic, but was reintroduced last July. Since then, 174 people have received a sanction for failing to meet their work-search requirements.
This is far below pre-pandemic rates, but the possibility of a sanction still hangs over interactions with the system. For Catherine, who has been on UC for nine months, it’s something she’s increasingly aware of. ‘Even in lockdown I need to be doing 15 hours of going out and looking for work,’ she says. ‘I feel like now they’re starting to put the pressure on, and they’re going to take away my £90 per week. It’s impossible. They can be as vicious as they want, but there are no jobs.’
Sanctions would strip away the last of the inadequate support Catherine has received. ‘You’re not allowed to have anything apart from your basic needs, and they don’t even provide you with that. If I didn’t have my sister I’d be homeless,’ she says.
That amount could be cut further still for Catherine and the 5.6 million other people currently claiming UC, as the government looks set to remove the £20 per week uplift provided at the start of the pandemic. Doing so threatens to leave benefit rates at their lowest level in real value terms for three decades – as the same time unemployment rates are expected to spike.
Making the uplift permanent has become a key battleground for campaigners and the opposition, but even kept, the myriad flaws of the threadbare social safety net will remain. For Carl, the years of hollowing-out of our social safety systems have been enabled by the negative solidarity towards people like him.
‘As welcome as the £20 has been, it still hasn’t done anything about the stigma of benefits,’ he says. ‘If there was a story on the £20 uplift on the BBC website today, if you’d go on it and half the comments are going to be ‘these people all smoke cigarettes and have smartphones.’’ For real, lasting change, it’s these attitudes that must be tackled first.
*Some names have been changed to protect interviewees.