Universal Credit: This Is What It’s Like Surviving On Benefits At A Time Of Huge Change In The System

'I am spiralling further into debt.'
A Universal Credit sign in the window of the Job Centre
A Universal Credit sign in the window of the Job Centre
Jack Taylor via Getty Images

People being moved onto the government’s flagship Universal Credit benefits programme are left spiralling into debt and despair by a system “designed to destroy people”, they have said.

As the government has come under mounting attack over the botched roll out of Universal Credit, people across the UK have told HuffPost UK of the turmoil of living through a time of huge change in the benefits system. It is a topic that has received a great deal of media attention - and taken up many hours of debate in Westminster. But how much do people who have never encountered the benefits system know about the day-to-day reality of living on Universal Credit? And why are people finding the new system so tough to cope with?

HuffPost UK spoke to some of those who are living through the change. A working mum from the south of England was forced to seek help from the food bank where she volunteers after a mistake in payments left her without money. In another desperate case, a Brighton woman, who has life-long mental health difficulties, has talked about feeling suicidal as she goes through the complicated process of moving from one set of benefit payments to another.

It comes as demands for the government to pause the roll out of Universal Credit have reached fever pitch, with a Commons select committee this week saying it is causing “unacceptable hardship” to those it was supposed to help.

Critics say the system is failing under the weight of budgets cuts and the unforeseen effects of combining multiple benefit payments into one single payment. There have been demands for urgent action and investment from the government. And, as the political row rolls on, all eyes are now fixed on the chancellor to see if he will offer any relief in the upcoming autumn budget and reverse £3billion of cuts specifically linked to Universal Credit.

The latest figures show 1.2 million people are now claiming the benefit with another 2 million due to be ‘migrated’ onto the system in stages from next year. As the row over the divisive reforms continues, HuffPost UK spoke to those at the eye of the storm. Their experiences were universally damning.

Single Dad: ‘I Am Spiralling Further Into Debt’

For single dad Chris Moyo, who is unemployed, uncertainty over the amount of money he receives each month has fuelled a cycle of debt. He was moved onto Universal Credit in December 2014 and says it has driven him further into financial hardship.

Talking to HuffPost UK from his sparsely furnished flat in the Lancashire market town of Chorley, he said: “Even now I am just trying to survive to the end of the month in just having food. I couldn’t travel to jobs until October 25th. It’s sad.”

Far from incentivising work, the 42-year-old says Universal Credit has made it almost impossible for him to move out of the trap of unemployment. He is instead spending 35 hours a week searching for a job and completing the mandatory Universal Credit journal so his benefit payments are not sanctioned.

“I am so capable of getting a job,” he said. “I have got two pairs of smart clothes so I can maintain some dignity, and I try really hard, but Universal Credit has literally closed all my options off.”

Explaining some of the hurdles he has faced, he said: “I started working as a part time cleaner at my local Asda, so I could get a working reference and start getting a little bit of extra money. As soon as I got my part time job, the Job Centre put pressure on me to get full time hours [and] put me on a three week course in another town. This resulted in me losing my part time job, and then they have the nerve to talk down to me. That is what it is really like.”

Moyo has also found that far from offering more stability, Universal Credit has resulted in massive differences in his monthly payments, making it impossible for him to budget effectively.

Under the new system, Universal Credit can take up to 40 per cent of a person’s benefit in debt recovery. While on the surface this seems a sensible idea to move people out of debt, Moyo says in his case it has left him with absolutely no idea how much money he will receive each month.

“The main point in my case is knowing what debt I owe, how much I need to pay out monthly and what realistic goals and targets I can achieve in light of my current situation,” he says.

Describing other hurdles claimants face, he says he is sometimes told to urgently confirm rent payments even though his landlord has already done this, which is difficult as he has no access to the internet at home.

“I am lucky I live next to a good library but what about those people who have to catch a bus to the nearest internet service provider and have no money due to massive deductions and sanctions?” he says. “What about people like myself who were homeless and just got a property, which is literally an empty flat or house.”

Food banks have seen demand soar in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out
Food banks have seen demand soar in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out
PA Viral News UK

Born in London, Moyo moved to Zimbabwe with his parents when he was eight and returned to this country aged 20. For five years he worked as a bin man in Manchester but developed pericarditis, a virus that affects the heart membrane, and was forced to stop work. Instead he stayed at home to raise his son.

In 2011, he got a job with Drive Assist UK, a leading car rental firm, but was left with no references when it went into administration, and he found himself suffering from severe depression. In March 2015 he became homeless and lived on the street for three months before being helped into housing.

Outside his own struggles, Moyo says he sees local support services being stretched to breaking point because of a rise in demand following the roll out of Universal Credit in his area, a common criticism of the scheme.

“My local food bank is closing due to high volumes of people needing the service and that means catching a bus or train to Preston, which is impossible due to having no money or not being able to walk due to hunger,” he says.

“It really touches my heart to see how people on Universal Credit are suffering. When you see a mother with hungry young children in the food bank, and then you hear how the rich politicians play down the issue. It’s wrong.”

Sanctions have been one of the most contentious aspects of the welfare reforms, and in Moyo’s experience it is easy to fall foul of the system. In order to receive his £317 monthly allowance he has to do 35 hours a week job-searching and detail all of this online.

“The library in Chorley is packed with unemployed people looking for jobs,” he said. “I applied for a cleaning job and there were 160 applicants lining up.

“They will put me on a course. Then they mess with your payment so you can’t get to the course or you have to sit through the course hungry for hours. If you then can’t complete the course you get sanctioned.”

Appealing for a radical overhaul of the system, he said: “All I need is a chance to settle and get going. It is strength and determination and good samaritans that have kept me alive but now I am struggling to keep myself together.

“The attitude of the Department of Work and Pensions has to change, the attitude that people on the dole are poor, scroungers. Poverty, addiction, ill health, and unfortunate circumstances do not discriminate.”

In the last couple of days, Moyo has been offered a job, which he hopes will be the first step to rebuilding his life.

Single Mum: ‘Our Cupboards Are Bare Of Food’

'My child knows when the cupboards are empty' says single mum forced to rely on food bank
'My child knows when the cupboards are empty' says single mum forced to rely on food bank
Andrew Aitchison via Getty Images

In a south of England seaside town, a working single mum has also experienced the consequences of fluctuating payments under Universal Credit.

The woman, who we have agreed not to name due to the stigma she feels over her situation, was forced to seek help when an error in her Universal Credit payment left her desperately short of money for the month and with no food in the cupboards to feed her child.

Explaining the moment she was forced to ask for help at the food bank where she is a volunteer, she said: “I broke down at the start of the session as the reality hit that I needed the food bank myself.

“It’s demoralising and degrading needing help and, at the end of the session, when no one else was around, I built up the courage to ask the food bank manager if there was any way I could get help and they gave me a food parcel.

“When I got home my child was so excited to unpack the food - and that we had food in the house, because although I hadn’t told him the situation, he knows when the cupboards are empty.”

In contrast to the government’s often cited stereotype of people on benefits being unable to budget, the mum, who works 22 hours a week in the public sector, says she “knows every penny she’s got every moment” because she has no choice but to. She logs onto her online Universal Credit account every two weeks to check what payment she is due.

As a result, when she spotted an overpayment on her account a couple of months ago she phoned Universal Credit advisors to alert them and the error was corrected immediately.

Then, in September, she saw she has been allocated no payment at all for the following month. In a problem that is reportedly common, two of her monthly salary cheques had been logged in the same month and, as the system is not set up to recognise this, she had wrongly been allocated no Universal Credit payment. She phoned advisors but this time was told the issue would take weeks to resolve.

The mix up came after she had already lost out on money in the switch to Universal Credit. She was moved onto the system in January 2017 and immediately saw a £250 monthly drop in allowance due to losing out on tax credits.

It is well documented that lone parents are among the groups worst affected by Universal Credit, with research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission showing they lose around 25% of their net income on average.

Mental Health Volunteer: ‘My Own Mental Health Is Suffering’

A Brighton woman has been left feeling suicidal as she navigates changes to her benefits
A Brighton woman has been left feeling suicidal as she navigates changes to her benefits
Andrew Hasson via Getty Images

In Brighton, 52-year-old Ellen has just received the letter telling her she will be moved onto Universal Credit in January. The letter says she will lose out on £64 a week as a result, which she describes as a huge amount on her income.

Ellen, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, was abused as a child and has suffered life-long mental health problems. But she says the stability offered by her current benefit payments has allowed her the space to live a very productive life.

“My situation is slightly different to people claiming benefits for the first time because I’ve been in and out of the mental health system since I was 15 and I’ve worked for extended periods of time and paid National Insurance and higher tax when I’ve been in really good jobs,” she says.

“But seven years ago I had to face the fact that I wasn’t mentally stable enough to hold down full time work. So I claimed for and was awarded full rate care Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and non-working Employment Support Allowance (ESA) with severe disablement premium, which for somebody like me is actually enough, not just to live on, but to have a quality of life.

“I volunteer for mental health charities, I became a peer mentor, and when I wasn’t well enough to work I could back off and not work, and of course I wasn’t penalised in any way. So life on benefits has been really manageable.”

But Ellen now faces a double whammy of changes to both her benefit streams at the same time.

She will have to go for reassessment just before Christmas to find out whether she will qualify for the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) - which is replacing Disability Living Allowance. Then in January she will be moved onto Universal Credit, replacing her current Employment Support Allowance.

Ellen is not confident she will qualify for the new PIP payment and the data backs up her fears. Government figures show as of October last year, 47% of those reassessed for PIP had money withdrawn or reduced. And decisions not to award PIP are being overturned at 68 per cent of appeal hearings.

“I can’t even put the heating on this winter because things are so uncertain”

- Ellen

Then in January Ellen will be moved onto Universal Credit. However the much-maligned five week delay in receiving a first Universal Credit payment means she could potentially be left without any money for the month if she does not qualify for PIP.

“The processes, which unfortunately are happening to me within eight weeks of each other, have made me extremely unwell again,” she said. “I have not had an admission for seven years, but I can’t see myself making it through the next two months unscathed.

“I have been advised I may lose half of all my long-established benefits. Existing without heating, internet, the distraction of TV and no mobile phone, is not a quality of life in modern life when one is alone most of the time, with long-term, severe mental health and no professional help owing to government cuts.”

The uncertainty over what will happen has had a profound impact on Ellen’s mental wellbeing.

“To be honest it has made me feel suicidal,” she told HuffPost UK. “Over the past two weeks I’ve done the whole fainting woman thing where I’ve taken to my bed in a darkened room.

“I can’t even put the heating on this winter because things are so uncertain. It’s about time people knew that these are the decisions that people are having to make these days.”

Of the desperate situation she is facing, she says: “I’m really not alone. The fact that it’s happening to me in Brighton only really goes to highlight how awful it is for people elsewhere. This government has no room for people like me, and I have done a lot of good in my life and I would like to carry on doing that.

“But the vilification is what’s so awful, the vilification of people on benefits.”

Stroke Survivor: ‘Will I Be Moved Onto Universal Credit?’

A stroke survivor was forced to fight through an appeals tribunal to have his benefit payments reinstated
A stroke survivor was forced to fight through an appeals tribunal to have his benefit payments reinstated
Oleg Elkov via Getty Images

In the north London borough of Camden, stroke survivor Simon has already been through the process of successfully appealing the refusal of his PIP payments.

He has asked for his full name not to be published as he is worried he may be penalised by the Department of Work and Pensions for speaking publicly. But the 63-year-old says he can understand the need for reform of the welfare system.

“I think what the government are trying to do to stop people abusing the system is quite correct,” he says. “But unfortunately the people who need it are also being penalised, and this is wrong.”

The former accountant, who lives in a council flat, had a stroke aged 42 and suffers from muscle weakness, pain, dizziness, fatigue, memory loss and anxiety as a result. He needs a walking stick to get around and has to take frequent stops. He requires an adapted bathroom and the damage to his memory makes even simple acts such as cooking difficult.

“I was going to stop, because I couldn’t stand the stress anymore. I thought I don’t need this”

- Simon

Yet Simon was turned down for PIP, effectively being declared fit for work. It was only with support from the charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust and the help of Citizens Advice Bureau and his GP that he was able to appeal the decision at tribunal, where his medical assessment score was increased from nine points to 66. You need 15 points to qualify for PIP and Simon was told his case was so clear cut it should never have reached court.

“I was going to stop,” Simon said of the appeal process, “because I couldn’t stand the stress anymore. I thought I don’t need this.”

He feels he should never have had to undergo reassessment because there is little prospect of his health ever improving.

“If you take a simple letter from my hospital consultant and it says there in black and white what happened to me, when you see that letter, you say to yourself, ‘Well ok, this man is not going to change, nothing is going to improve’.

“When they see that letter you can take a sensible view of what’s going to happen, there’s going to be no change. When somebody looks at something like that at the department it should be really clear, but if they’re going to ignore stuff like that then to me it’s ridiculous. Because if there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re trying to make fun of the system, it is so clear.”

The 63-year-old has not received any letters from the Department for Work and Pensions saying he will be moved onto Universal Credit and is unclear about what it is. But he is receiving Employment Support Allowance, which is due to be completely phased out and replaced by Universal Credit. So it is likely that at some point in the future Simon will face more changes in the system.

Of the whole changeover process, he says: “I thought it was terrible, just terrible. To be frank with you I don’t see why I had to go through it, it was ridiculous.

“This change that they did, I didn’t really understand it and nobody sat down and explained what was happening to me. So I just didn’t know. I didn’t really understand what this was all about.”

People with disabilities are recognised as among the groups worst hit by the implementation of Universal Credit, with a Citizens Advice Bureau report this week finding some disabled people could be left £300 a month worse off compared to the old benefits system.

Government Stands Firm By System

The Department for Work and Pensions has defended Universal Credit
The Department for Work and Pensions has defended Universal Credit

Despite a torrent of mounting criticism over Universal Credit, even from within the ranks of the Conservative Party, the government is resolute that it is the right way forward to bring about lasting reform of the welfare system and incentivise people into work.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) says it continues to spend around £90 billion a year supporting people who need it, including those who are out of work or on a low income.

A DWP spokesman told HuffPost UK: “Universal Credit replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system that dis-incentivised work and often trapped people in unemployment. With Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.

“We recognise the importance of safeguarding claimants who have incurred debt and there are protections in place including making it possible for vulnerable claimants to have some of their third party bills paid directly to avoid having their gas or electricity cut off.

“We have recently announced a partnership with Citizens Advice to provide Universal Support, which will help the most vulnerable claimants make and manage their claim – this includes budgeting support. Job Centres can also help with the cost of travel.”

The DWP said the next stage of Universal Credit will be rolled out in stages using a “test and learn approach” and that the latest research shows 83% of all new Universal Credit claims were paid in full and on time.

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk