Universal Credit Has Made My Constituents' Lives Worse. It Must Be Stopped Immediately.

This is not a criticism of the hard-working frontline staff trying to run a complicated and problematic system – it is a criticism of a government which chose to ignore the flaws of this frustrating policy.

We’ve just had another month where the seemingly endless problems with Universal Credit have again been highlighted, leaving us all (my caseworkers, but also local welfare rights organisations and campaigners) so frustrated that the government ploughs on regardless with this system.

The fact that one of the groups made significantly poorer by Universal Credit is severely disabled people, shows this Tory government in their true colours. Ministers promised repeatedly in the media and in Parliament that no one would be worse off in cash terms at the point of transferring to Universal Credit, yet they rolled it out without any cash top-up, known as transitional protection. It is a scandal that of the million people who have ‘naturally migrated’ onto Universal Credit without protection, there are over 10,000 people who have lost their disability premiums worth around £180 per month, or £2,000 per year.

The government’s justification for people suddenly losing money was that there had been a ‘change of circumstance’. Yet for some people the only change was a house move, with no change to their level of disability. For others it was a distressing change outside their control such as becoming too ill to work, the death of a family member or having to flee domestic violence.

When I asked the government minister responsible how many people had been made worse off on Universal Credit and for a breakdown of which changes of circumstances that had prompted the move to Universal Credit, I was shocked by the answer: the government had clearly kept no records of these important facts. The minister said it was impossible to compare the amounts of the old and new benefit. This is plainly ridiculous when thousands of people have come to advisers and MPs to tell us exactly how much worse off they are.

Ministers also tried to get away with telling us that you can only move onto Universal Credit when you have had a change of circumstance. This was simply not true. Once the ‘full’ version of Universal Credit is available in your postcode, and it is everywhere now, anyone can voluntarily claim Universal Credit.

It is very worrying that people have accidentally claimed Universal Credit, hoping to get additional financial help, only to end up worse off. Even more concerningly, some people have been advised to claim it by the Department of Work and Pensions. The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers (NAWRA) has described this ‘Falling, Jumping or Pushed’, and presented the Work and Pensions Committee with evidence that Jobcentres and DWP helplines told people they needed to claim Universal Credit, when in fact they did not.

It is totally unacceptable that people have been given the wrong advice when it affects them so dramatically. This is not a criticism of the hard-working frontline DWP staff trying to run a complicated and problematic system. It is a criticism of a government which chose to ignore expert advice about the flaws in the process and failed to build basic safeguards into that process.

From January 2019, a new rule was introduced that prevents people with the ‘severe disability premium’ going onto Universal Credit, but this follows the bravery of two disabled men who won their legal case against the government in summer 2018. Disabled people have literally had to take the Department for Work and Pensions to court to get a semblance of fair treatment. What a damning indictment that is on this government.

But, incredibly, there is more. The promise of compensation for the thousands of people in the same position is in draft regulations not yet passed through Parliament. Yet those brave people had to pursue a second legal challenge, because the compensation promised in those regulations is £100 less per month than the amount they have actually lost. I cannot understand a government spending public money fighting severely disabled people in the courts, rather than correcting their mistake.

Under pressure from Labour, the work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has admitted that the “managed migration” stage Universal Credit will now proceed with “utmost care”. So why was my 64-year-old constituent Annie not treated with ‘utmost care’ having suffered the double whammy of her state pension being delayed till she is 66, and now subject to Universal Credit’s complicated self-employment rules, which have left her feeling humiliated and unable to afford clothes?

Why was another constituent, Geoff, not treated with “utmost care” when he was told to claim Universal Credit after being found ‘fit for work’, when he could have stayed on his Employment Support Allowance during his appeal and kept his severe disability premium?

The promise of compensation from ministers to anyone who has been misadvised gives me hope for the people who have undergone months of distress. However, the impact on severely disabled people is just one aspect of a deeply flawed benefit described last week by a former Lord Justice of Appeal as “Orwellian… a system which is intended to alleviate hardship yet is administered in ways which generate and aggravate human misery”.

The government should immediately stop anyone else from going onto Universal Credit before further harm is done.

Laura Pidcock is the Labour MP for North West Durham


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