I have been on Universal Credit for about two years now, it is a joint claim with my partner. Since the beginning it has been the cause of much stress and financial difficulty for us. I will try and explain these problems chronologically and concisely.
The first, and I imagine most common problem, is finding yourself in rent arrears because of the long wait for any money. We had over £600 of arrears for this reason, paying even this relatively small amount is very difficult when one is struggling to live and make ends meet. Not to mention the stress of being in debt and receiving letters from the council. I will also point out here that after putting us in debt, UC (universal credit), were then deducting £100 a month from our money to pay off the debt that was caused by UC in the first place. Slightly ironic perhaps?
So that was the first problem; right from the off we were on the back foot, in debt, struggling to catch up. I think it is important to now explain a little about our personal circumstances at this time as when discussing UC it is important to remember that it is real people's lives that are affected.
Let me set the scene then. My partner and I had just moved into a new flat and we'd just found out I was pregnant, hurrah! My partner was looking for work (we live in a very small town and jobs are not exactly abundant) and I had just started a job waitressing in a pub. With my first month's wage I received a tax rebate (to the tune of approx. £300), what a stroke of luck I thought, just when we're setting up our new home and getting ready for our new arrival. Little did we know that it is not considered a stroke of luck, but actually considered income and deducted from one's UC.
Unfortunately for us it was paid at the beginning of our assessment period meaning it was some weeks until our UC pay day and it had been well and truly spent. It is worth noting here that we do not have an online journal, so every UC payment is a complete surprise to us. Imagine my shock and horror when I checked my bank account and saw that we had been paid £0 because of the £300 tax rebate I had received three or four weeks previously.
With no notice or prior warning we were paid nothing, of course if I had known I wouldn't of spent my rebate on baby things. I was distraught, hysterical even (not good for my baby) how could we survive the month on fresh air? Thankfully there was the Scottish Welfare fund to give us some money for the electricity meter and to go shopping for food. And thankfully we had some family to lend us small amounts of money to get us through. However the result was more debt and more stress.
Despite the extra debt and stress caused by UC, we somehow managed to survive my pregnancy, with no maternity pay or maternity allowance. My partner got a job a month before I was due to give birth, hooray! We heaved a sigh of relief, no more UC. No more financial uncertainty, no more feeling helpless and victim to the system. Independence at last! Now to start digging ourselves out of the hole that UC had put us in. Sadly it was not to be. Due to my partner being paid a pittance (minimum wage) we could not escape UC and still had to rely on my partner's wages being topped up.
My partner gets paid the same, week in, week out and so according to UC the amount of money we receive from UC should be the same, month to month. But wait! A recent payment we received was £250, only logical to expect the same amount the next month. No such luck, £79 was the next months payment. I phoned to check if this was correct and apparently it was as some assessment periods are four weeks and some are five.
Alas my tale of UC woe does not end there. As my partner is in work we decide that we'd like to come off UC due to all of our negative experiences, and apply for working tax credits instead. I phone up UC and ask to end my claim. The advisor tells me that I cannot end my claim and that because we still had rent arrears and outstanding social fund payments (my partners from 2011/12 seriously, could these not have been deducted from when he was on jobseekers? Why wait so many years and take it from a joint claim?) that we could not come off UC until these were paid. I was advised to phone the relevant departments and organise payment so we could then end our claim. At least twelve infuriating phone calls later I realise that this advice is bogus. I put in a complaint to UC and the manager that calls me back confirms that the advice I was given was completely inaccurate.
I almost don't want to go on as I am boring myself but let me explain my current gripe (understatement) with UC. Between UC and my partner paying extra we managed to pay off the aforementioned rent arrears, yippee! We actually paid so much we were a month in credit with the council. My partner was paying the rent by direct debit and so I thought I would phone UC and request that our housing element be paid into my account, rather than to the council. Somehow this request was misunderstood by the UC advisor I spoke to and they suspended our housing element all together.
Despite not getting all the money we were entitled to, we continued to pay the rent. This was from June this year. I've been phoning UC and trying to follow their advice on getting this situation resolved. All I needed was the council to give UC permission to pay me the housing element, rather than them.
Unfortunately for me my housing officer is completely incompetent. Since June I have been phoning UC and going into the council to try sort this issue out. After three months someone at UC, in their infinite wisdom, decided to pay my back dated housing element (which UC had assured me I would get backdated) to the council. Let me repeat this point for emphasis. The backdated housing element that was owed to my partner and myself got paid to the council instead. I was distraught. All those months of phone calls, meetings with the council etc had resulted in the worst possible outcome, for us at least. I complained to UC and got a phone call from them apologising for suspending my housing element and then paying the backdated money to the council. I was told that they had spoken to the council got the permission that was needed so all future housing element would be paid to me. I was also told that I would be able to claim that money back from the and council. Result!
My current situation is this. I did apply for that money back, £991.94. I've been waiting for a cheque from the council to arrive this week. Yet low and behold, what's this? The council are refusing to give it back. So thanks to UC's incompetence we are almost a thousand pounds out of pocket.
So let us summarise the faults and failures of Universal credit in my experience:
- Rent arrears and debt caused by the long wait for any money
- Lack of consistency and no notice of payment amounts
- Money that is owed in overpaid tax actually leaves you worse off as it is counted as income
- Numerous phone calls having to be made by the claimant and at their expense
- Incorrect and inconsistent advice being given
- Very costly mistakes being made, resulting in large sums of money being lost
At the moment every morning when I wake up, I cry because of UC, I can't see a way out of it. Even when my partner got a job it did not release us from the stress and problems caused by being on UC. It is almost impossible to budget and keep up with rent and bills as you never know how much money you will receive. I know that our experience is not even that bad compared to some people's. UC is destroying lives rather than helping people. I worked since I was fifteen. I have paid into the system, why when I needed some temporary help am I treated and degraded like this?
Countless struggling families, a lot of who are working, are being pushed under financially by UC and pushed to the brink emotionally and psychologically. It is a blight on the UK, a disgrace and a scandal. Something must be done!