Universal Credit – “forcing many into debt”

Jul 07 Dealing With Debt - Magnifying Glass

By Heather Cameron

“The biggest change ever made to the benefits system… is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt.”

This is the conclusion of a new report from Citizens Advice on Universal Credit (UC). It warns that the roll-out should be paused to allow ‘significant problems’ to be fixed.

What is Universal Credit?

UC was introduced in 2013, with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, making transitions into work easier and making every hour of work pay. UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with one benefit, to be paid in arrears, as a single household payment, on a monthly basis.

The objective of UC is to help people on low incomes or not in work to meet their living costs. It affects a range of people, both employed and unemployed, disabled people with health conditions, single people, families, homeowners and renters.

Roll-out so far has been gradual but the process is to speed up considerably from October. By the end of roll-out in 2022, it is expected around 7.2 million households will receive UC, over half of which will be in work.

With such a significant number of people affected, it is imperative that the system works in their interests. But evidence from Citizens Advice suggests the system has a number of flaws that need addressing to prevent 7 million households from facing serious financial risk.

And this isn’t the first time similar conclusions have been reached.

Flaws

Back in February, a Guardian investigation found that policy design flaws in UC are pushing thousands of benefit claimants into debt. Former welfare minister Lord Freud also admitted to MPs that administrative problems and design issues with UC are causing around one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction.

In 2016, an inquiry into UC and its implementation by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the inflexibility of the payment systems which may cause financial hardship for some claimants.

Citizens Advice highlight three “significant problems” with UC:

  • people are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income;
  • UC is too complicated and people are struggling to use it; and
  • people aren’t getting help when the system fails them.

The data shows that:

  • more than one in three people helped on UC by Citizens Advice are waiting more than six weeks to receive any income, with 11% waiting over 10 weeks;
  • nearly a third of people helped have to make more than 10 calls to the helpline to sort out their claim;
  • 40% of people helped said they were not aware they could get an advance payment to help with the initial waiting period for their first payment;
  • over half of the people helped borrowed money while waiting for their first payment; and
  • UC clients are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues as those on other benefits.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly highlighted the issue of waiting time, arguing that it required immediate action.

While Citizens Advice support the principles of UC, it argues that pushing ahead with roll-out while these problems remain will only put thousands more families at financial risk.

Recommendations

In response to these findings, a number of short and longer term considerations were highlighted where action will be needed to help secure the aims of UC by the end of roll-out. These include reducing the six week wait for initial payment, improving the support available for those moving onto UC, and helping people achieve financial stability on UC.

The charity recommends that the roll-out is paused while the government addresses the significant issues that have been highlighted. If improvements are not made, it is argued that both UC claimants and the government will face significant financial risks, which will increase rapidly if thousands more households move onto the benefit later this year.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous article on in-work poverty.

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