Universal Credit set to arrive in Waltham Forest

Waltham Forest Stand Up For Your Rights activist Gary Martin on the local impact of the new benefits system

Universal CreditThis year Waltham Forest will start to experience the full impact of the government’s Universal Credit scheme as the new benefits payment system is introduced across the borough.

So far locally the scheme has chiefly affected unemployed single people making new claims, but from May 2018 income-related benefit claimants, including families with children, self-employed, and other low-income workers currently receiving tax credits, will be told to apply for Universal Credit.

When the service has arrived in other areas, it has had a dramatic effect on local people’s lives. In Southwark, reports documented how demand for foodbanks increased and rent arrears soared.

There were some limited changes in the recent budget announcement from the government, in response to criticism. The six-week minimum interruption of benefits has been reduced to five weeks. It has also been made easier to get a loan from the Department for Work and Pensions. But the period with no money at the start of a Universal Credit claim is only part of the impact on people’s lives.

Firstly, there is the sheer difficulty of making a claim. If you are not good at working with computers you could be in big trouble. If you make a mistake with your claim, it can mean more delays in receiving your benefits. The five-week wait
will grow.

It is not just about filling in boxes, it also involves scanning in and uploading documentation. The proof of ID required is now greater, a passport and drivers’ licence may
no longer be enough. One place to get help is in job centres, but worryingly, Leytonstone Job Centre is closing just a month before Universal Credit is introduced here. It will
leave Walthamstow as the only job centre open in the borough.

While much has been made of the simplification of combining benefits together, making it easier for the government to calculate, crucially for claimants it raises the stakes. Previously, one mistake might stop one benefit, but now it could stop everything. It is all or nothing.

There has been a lot less said about the reduction in money for those on low incomes who are forced into Universal Credit. Some will gain, but most will lose – with a million families expected to be more than £2,000 a year worse off according to the Resolution Foundation. Disturbingly, it is people such as single parents and persons with disabilities who stand to lose most.

For unemployed people, often the worst aspect psychologically is the pressure from the ‘claimant commitment’. This means meeting job search quotas, even when you know that applying for many jobs is futile. Such pressure is a big reason given by some young single people who have been to Walthamstow Job Centre for why they would rather go hungry than continue claiming. They are not alone in making this judgement.

Sanctions did not start with Universal Credit, but they are now used more. According to a University of Glasgow analysis, sanction rates are at least four times higher than Job Seekers’ Allowance. It also found one in nine Universal Credit claimants were sanctioned in March 2017. Anecdotal reports include terminally ill people being pressured to attend training sessions.

Supporters of Universal Credit point to the fact that benefits will not suddenly drop if, for example, a part-time worker extends their hours. That is true and good. But they do not mention that claimants can be pressurised to increase their hours and hence their earnings. This can disrupt parents’ plans for how they want to bring up their children.

For more information regarding the introduction of Universal Credit:
Call 020 8496 3000
Visit walthamforest.gov.uk/content/universal-credit

To contact Waltham Forest Citizens’ Advice Bureau:
Call 0300 330 1175
Visit citizensadvice.org.uk/local/waltham-forest