Big concerns over Universal Credit remain

Julia Poynter, chair of Waltham Forest Stand Up for Your Rights, on the latest fears over the government’s new benefits system

Universal CreditIn 2019 the government’s all-in-one benefits system, Universal Credit (UC), is set to be extended to working families in Waltham Forest – we estimate 70,000 local people could soon be on it.

After a series of highly-critical official reports, in November the government made some changes to UC, roughly halving the average losses working families on tax credits will face. But single parents and some disabled people in particular will still lose out.

The new system’s design disadvantages women; currently, many tax credits are more often paid to women than to men, but with Universal Credit there can only be a single payment made per household. Having rejected a call for ‘split payments’ under UC, the government is making it more difficult for women to survive financially if they flee domestic abuse.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report noted the government’s aims for UC would increase the caseload for back-office managers sixfold, and for work coaches fourfold. This is to be achieved through “more automation”. But that means more use of technology, which often baffles applicants, and less face-to-face contact.

Appointments for jobseekers living in the south of Waltham Forest are less accessible now that the Leytonstone Jobcentre Plus has been closed. The NAO report calls for big improvements in administrative performance before existing benefits claimants are moved to UC. Faced with a highly sceptical report from one of its own committees, the Department for Work and Pensions announced in November that it would soften some aspects of the “managed migration” to UC for existing benefits claimants and delay the start of forced transfers by possibly six months.

The government’s own research has found that most applicants face “difficulty” in making UC claims, especially those with mental health issues. These difficulties continue even after people are signed up to UC.

Many local authorities and prominent politicians, including Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, have called for a halt in extending UC until major design flaws and administrative problems are addressed. Trade unions have called for it to be scrapped altogether. In the meantime, Camden and Southwark councils have promised not to evict tenants where UC is a factor in rent arrears. Tower Hamlets Council is spending £1million on specialist staff to help people on UC. Waltham Forest Council has talked vaguely about support from existing staff and money (about £30,000 a year) for Citizens Advice Bureau staff to advise on budgeting.

Waltham Forest Stand Up for Your Rights has road-tested the ‘support’ offered to people on UC locally; that given in libraries, for example. It amounted to being helped to log on to a computer and then being left to get on with it. That is nowhere near enough. Library assistants have neither the time nor training for the ongoing support specialist staff can give.