The BBC reported this week that the Universal Credit roll out has been delayed again until 2024, at a cost of £500m.
The people who use our services at Changing Lives tell us time and time again about the issues around Universal Credit. The new benefit, which replaces six existing payments, has been beset with problems, with claimants having to wait between five and 12 weeks for the payments to start and many people falling into destitution.
The welfare state is supposed to be a safety net for the most disadvantaged in our society and Universal Credit has removed this. If the Government wants to restore confidence in Universal Credit, it needs to use this extra, and costly, delay to 2024 to listen to the people in our community who need to use the benefits system. It is crucial that they provide enough for people to live on and tackle the problems with Universal Credit head on.
The financial hardship that Universal Credit generates is already very apparent with people who use our services at Changing Lives. The three key issues our services consistently report are:
- People frequently have no formal ID, no bank account, and are not digitally literate and have no access to the internet – making it impossible to claim Universal Credit.
- The timescale for processing a new claim is commonly five to six weeks – but delays can take up to 11 weeks.
- It is possible to access Advance Payments while a claim is processed. But the rates of repayment are excessive and non-negotiable, leaving people in extreme financial hardship.
We know of people who have been given £250 as an advance payment with no indication of how long this should last (six weeks). If this does not cover rent (which it often doesn’t) homelessness is inevitable. The difference with Universal Credit is that any deductions are taken from the one ‘universal’ benefit, so there is no capacity to protect rent, for example (as the old system would have provided with a separate housing benefit entitlement).
At Changing Lives, we work hard to ensure that the voices of the people who need our services are heard. We recently visited Parliament with a woman we support who felt her only option was to sell sex as a direct result of problems associated with the roll out of Universal Credit. This is the stark reality of the Universal Credit system – with people being left with such small amounts to live on that it is impossible to sustain their health or welfare at even the most basic level. It is of no surprise that people sell sex in order to survive, especially those with children to care for.
We see women selling sex for the first time; we see women returning to sex work years after they have stopped; we see up to a third of women in some of our services choosing not to apply for Universal Credit at all. They all say selling sex is their ‘last resort’.
This situation is unthinkable and we need to make sure we never tolerate a system where people who are most in need in our communities are pushed into destitution and forced into selling sex as their only option. It is the responsibility of Changing Lives, and the many other organisations, to hold the government to account on this matter.
We were privileged to help give a voice to this brave woman who came forward to give evidence at Parliament recently and it was extremely encouraging to see that her experiences have informed the recommendations of the Work and Pensions Committee. Let’s continue to listen to the people in our society who have the most need and work together to give them a voice. The Government absolutely needs to use this extra time between now and 2024 to genuinely listen to the reality of people who need Universal Credit and to make welfare reform work for the people who need it.