Anyone who's ever worked with the benefit system knows that the principle of amalgamating our overly bureaucratic social security system (where Housing Benefit is administered by your local council, tax credits by HMRC and Job Seekers Allowance by the DWP) is a good thing. Universal Credit - where benefits are combined - therefore sounds like a great idea.
But at Gingerbread, we're seeing first-hand, through the calls to our helpline and our research, that Universal Credit is too 'universal' in practice. It is ignoring the needs of single parents bringing up children on their own. In the last few months I have travelled across England to interview single parents about their experience of Universal Credit and the impact it is having on them and their children.
According to the most recent DWP statistics, there are currently over 65,000 single parents receiving Universal Credit. This system is simply not ready to take on the complexity of their situations.
My interviews have shown that Universal Credit is causing real financial misery to single parents and their children. In just the last 48 hours, I have been contacted by a distraught single parents involved in these interviews.
Elaine is in her 40s and is raising her primary school aged daughter on her own, with no financial support from the other parent. She holds down two low-paid, part-time jobs - in total this gives her up to 30 hours a week of work. Without suitable childcare she sometimes has to take her daughter to work with her in the mornings and weekends.
Elaine's story dispels this government's narrative that the main 'route' out of poverty is through work. Despite holding down these two jobs, Elaine is struggling. She has faced a seven-week wait for her initial Universal Credit payment to come through - which is pretty normal unfortunately.
Elaine is bringing up her daughter in a privately-rented flat, which is riddled with mould and damp. She pays £1000 in rent each month as she waits for a council property. As a result of Universal Credit, Elaine's rent payments were delayed for two months, leading to £2000 worth of rent arrears. This has triggered Elaine's landlord to start the process of eviction.
In Elaine's words:
'Universal Credit actually made the landlord take me to court... She knows some of the landlords that are evicting people that are on Universal Credit. She doesn't want to give anyone accommodation that's receiving Universal Credit'
Yesterday, Elaine contacted me to say that a bailiff warrant has been issued. Both Elaine - a working parent - and her daughter who relies solely upon her, will be homeless by the end of the month. This is because of Universal Credit.
Elaine story is not unusual. The dire impact of Universal Credit on single parents was a recurring theme across my interviews. Jessica in Liverpool who is raising two young sons has £3 left in her bank account after her Universal Credit payments were suspended with no notice. Laura in the North East, who was never informed of Advance Payments by her Job Centre, only found out about them at the local food bank. There's Caroline in London who is still waiting for her Housing payment to be calculated, and faces eviction from her temporary homeless accommodation in the meantime. There's Frances in Sussex who's required to look for work totalling 35 hours a week, despite the fact that her son is just 5 and she has no support from her ex-partner or family.
These single parents are being let down by a system that was meant to help and support them. It was meant to break down the obstacles and challenges they face in balancing work with their caring responsibilities.
Along with politicians of all political persuasions, as well as pretty much everyone who works with individuals receiving social security, Gingerbread is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit to be paused. We ask Job Centre managers and work coaches to treat single parents with the care and compassion they deserve. We ask for legislative change against cuts to the work allowance.
And, finally, we ask the government to listen to us, and to the stories of these parents. They need to remember that even good intentions can lead to bad policy and irrevocable damage for working and non-working families alike.
Gingerbread is the leading charity working with single parent families. If you're a single parent in England or Wales and you're facing these issues, give the Freephone Gingerbread helpline a call on 0808 802 0925. If you've a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more information visit our website.