The wide-ranging impacts of a controversial benefit reform have been laid bare in hundreds of pages of evidence sent to a parliamentary inquiry, which expose how the overhaul is even hurting organisations attempting to help people affected by it.
The chairman of the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee of MPs is urging the Government to re-think its rollout of Universal Credit (UC) in Wednesday’s Budget after receiving a “mountain” of damning submissions.
The committee and its inquiry have received more than 130 written pieces of evidence from organisations and people on the frontline - including agencies, unions, and charities - that show how not only claimants are being affected.
The much-maligned welfare reform, and specifically how it has been implemented, has received fierce criticism even among Conservative backbenchers during a series of regional trials to bring six benefits into one single payment.
HuffPost UK has trawled through much of the evidence handed to the committee, which underlines repeatedly how households relying on the payment are falling into rent arrears to a much greater extent than under the previous system among a long list of problems.
At the heart of the programme is handing out the benefit after a six-week delay, a notion ingrained by its creator Iain Duncan Smith to get claimants used to the same principle as if they were in work.
While the Government has made a concession by offering ‘advanced loans’ to those plunged into the most financial difficulty by the delay, the issue is only one of many identified in the evidence.
The submissions lay bare how UC is blighted by a lack of awareness among those affected, a ‘digital first’ approach that appears baffling to those lacking computer literacy, and pressure on staff charged with delivering the benefit that has led to health problems.
As a result, claimants are cutting out necessities, borrowing from pay-day lenders and relying on food banks as they struggle with debt.
Frank Field MP, chair of the committee, told HuffPost UK: “It beggars belief that the Government continues to press ahead mulishly with this policy in its current form, in the face of the mountain of evidence of hardship and misery it is already causing.
“A Budget announcement this week immediately cutting the cruel initial six-week wait to one month could still - just - give a little hope to the 60,000 households, including 40,000 children, who are expected to make a Universal Credit claim before Christmas.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “The best way to help people improve their lives and increase their incomes is through employment, and with Universal Credit claimants are moving into jobs faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
“Universal Credit is paid the same way as many people in work are. Budgeting support and advances are available to anyone who needs it. Continuing to roll out Universal Credit in a safe and controlled way will mean many more will benefit from moving into employment.”
The evidence submitted reveals where those dealing with the fallout believe it is failing...
There are fundamental systemic flaws within both its design and subsequent application
- Halton Housing Trust, social housing provider in North West England
Halton is now on the full digital universal credit service, and calls out its “fundamental systemic flaws within both its design and subsequent application”.
Damningly it reveals how it has “compiled a body of evidence highlighting how Universal Credit is fuelling personal debt, food bank use, rent arrears and eviction, as well as mental distress”.
In one striking example of how badly the benefit is being administered, parents are being denied food vouchers that are supposed to ensure children in the poorest families are not going hungry.
It says a glitch in the Gov.uk website means those who move onto the benefit from a ‘legacy’ welfare payment are having ‘Healthy Start’ vouchers stopped. The vouchers provide basic foods such as milk or fruit.
“We are concerned that some of the most vulnerable children we deal with as a landlord are increasingly at risk of being left without food,” it says.
“Over the last 12 months the number of referrals Halton Housing has made to local foodbanks has more than doubled.”
Its evidence is also notable for its critique of recently introduced advanced payments to help claimants facing delays to their benefit.
It says a single claimant on average receives £22 per week, which is “significantly lower” than the 50% of their allowance they are expected to get, which included housing costs. “This is clearly insufficient to live on for a period of between six and eight weeks,” it notes.
The current rollout schedule pushes staff into an intolerable situation.
- Public and Commercial Services Union, which has around 51,000 members based at the Department for Work and Pensions
The union represents civil servants, and around 51,000 of its members are based at the Department for Work and Pensions, the Whitehall department leading the reform.
It sheds light on a system struggling to cope, with call centre staff reporting backlogs which have huge knock-on effects. Despite the “digital only” approach, staff “complain of having to spend a disproportionate amount of time” on the telephone. This is at the expense of processing claims with staff “often being switched from processing work to telephony duties at very short notice”.
It has created a vicious circle where more resources are being put into answering calls than DWP has planned for. “This has the impact of staff being moved from processing work in order to deal with the high call volumes,” it says. “This delays the processing of claims further, which in turn generates more calls.”
Despite the extra resource, the DWP target for answering 90% of calls is “almost always missed ... even with the regular movement of staff from processing to telephony”.
The PCS’s testimonies from staff underline the frustration. One said: “Why are we constantly being pulled onto the telephones ... it feels like we are a call centre and not able to do case management to the standards we would like for our claimants.”
Another added: “How can we case manage claims which in turn prevents calls if all we are doing is answering calls? This is supposed to be a digital service but yet again it’s becoming a phone service, as management haven’t got the balls to tell customers this and refuse the calls coming in.”
And there is a domino effect for the health of staff. “More and more staff are thinking of going sick or even leaving,” said another member of staff. “I myself have suffered with depression for a few years now and finding it harder to cope on a daily basis with the workload. There is nowhere to turn.”
It is our sincere concern that the current rollout schedule pushes staff into an intolerable situation, whilst at the same time undermining the service relied upon by the most vulnerable in society.
In conclusion, it says: “It is our sincere concern that the current rollout schedule pushes staff into an intolerable situation, whilst at the same time undermining the service relied upon by the most vulnerable in society.”
It impacts our ability to reinvest in existing housing and develop more affordable homes.
- Peabody Trust and Family Mosaic, housing associations in London and the South East
The housing associations warn that as a provider of homes for low-income families it risks being hit too. Half of its tenants pay rent via housing benefits, which is being rolled into UC, so families falling into arrears “creates further risks for our business plan, in particular our ability to provide further much-needed affordable housing”.
“Not only does this have a strong negative impact on our tenants, it affects Peabody indirectly as a landlord,” it says in its evidence. “A significant proportion of our income has been placed at risk, impacting our long-term ability to reinvest in existing stock and develop more affordable homes.”
It speaks of the anxiety faced by claimants who are long-term sick and disabled and already uncomfortable with Work Capability Assessments. “An overriding problem for this group is uncertainty,” it says, adding a combination of delays and appeals causes “great distress”.
If rollout continues as thus far, the cumulative pressure on stretched volunteer groups will leave foodbanks unable to help everyone affected.
- Trussell Trust, the anti-poverty charity
It has told of “significant problems” in areas where UC has been implemented, with 65% of its foodbanks reporting significant increase in people needing emergency food parcels.
One claimant was sent to a foodbank with a voucher from the council, having not eaten for five days and facing a six-week wait for money.
“I lost my job in October and have been relying on money from friends and family to survive, but that is no longer possible,” they said.
As with the housing associations, it warns of the knock-on effects for its wider work: “If roll-out continues as thus far, not only will the impact on people claiming UC increase, but the cumulative pressure on stretched volunteer groups will leave foodbanks unable to help everyone affected.”
People have rent arrears of over £1,000 and have no idea how they are going to be able to afford to pay it back
The CAB, and its dozens of individual branches, support the “principles underpinning UC”, but report huge concerns, with more than half of those who sought advice about the benefit had been forced to borrow money.
“We’ve helped people who have rent arrears of over £1,000 and have no idea how they are going to be able to afford to pay it back,” the submission says.
“Others who have never been in debt before claiming Universal Credit. People having to choose between rent, heat, electricity or food during the six-week wait.
“We have seen clients who have lost childcare places and then had to stop working due to delays receiving their payments.”
When one in two people with mental health problems have felt suicidal because of money, housing or benefits issues, this has huge implications
- Mind, mental health charity
Local advisers at the mental health charity in areas where UC is being rolled out have reported many of the people they support struggle to manage during the six-week waiting period for initial payments and are not being offered advances because Jobcentre advisers do not ask them the right questions.
They say many people with mental health issues do not have savings, nor can they easily use a computer or technology to access help.
Most worryingly of all, around half of Mind’s services users have previously felt suicidal about money issues and the charity has warned of “huge implications”.
UC as currently implemented is detrimental to the needs of vulnerable adults and children, and creates costs elsewhere for the public sector
Struggling local authorities face even more pressure as a result of the reform. It labels UC “as it is currently implemented” as having a “detrimental impact on users of children and adult services”. It warns shortfalls in income “impacts adversely on parenting, accommodation, and already precarious family income and circumstances”.
The representative group also fears an “increase in demand for children’s services” and will have a “detrimental to disabled people achieving independence and choice in their accommodation needs”.
The rollout of UC, so close to Christmas, will put additional pressure on households, leading to increase in debt levels
Raised several times by DWP committee chair Frank Field, who is also the constituency MP for the area, the foodbank has been stockpiling extra supplies to deal with UC’s roll-out in Birkenhead over the Christmas period.
As well as requiring 15 extra tonnes of food to meet demand, the volunteer-led organisation is also worried about the “emotional impact” the situation will have on those who give up their time to help run it.
UC haven’t yet paid a single penny to my landlord and he’s threatening me with eviction
- Turn2us, national charity that helps people living on the breadline.
Turn2us carried out its own survey of UC claimants.
Among the more concerning results was the number of respondents being forced into rent arrears: 85% of those asked.
One claimant said: “UC haven’t yet paid a single penny to my landlord and he’s threatening me with eviction. I really don’t know how to get out of this one.”
Other individuals who have called the charity’s helpline have lost their homes because landlords will not wait for rent payments, and are depending on food banks, emergency support, friends and family for help.
It prevents new rough sleepers from being accepted into the service and supported off the streets
- St Mungo’s, homelessness charity
It warns of “delays, inaccuracies and poor communication from helpline staff resulting in individual hardship for clients and financial risk for St Mungo’s”.
It notes how claimants require an email address and bank account, and that all claims are made online. “This can be extremely challenging for St Mungo’s clients, many of whom do not have the digital skills required to make and maintain a claim,” it says. “Similarly, many of our clients do not have a bank account and do not possess the forms of identification required to open one.”
The pattern of families slipping into rent arrears and facing evictions, and the reluctance of landlords to let properties to UC claimants, is leading to people seeking temporary accommodation “for weeks at a time”.
“This leads to cramped and uncomfortable conditions, and prevents new rough sleepers from being accepted into the service and supported off the streets,” it adds.